Chalmers Hall on the University of Kansas campus is now home to a brand-new gallery dedicated to Indigenous excellence in the visual arts.
The Edgar Heap of Birds Family Gallery, presented by KU Endowment and the Department of Visual Art, will host an annual series of exhibits featuring the work of Native American artists.
The gallery’s inaugural exhibit, “Indigenous Space,” will debut during a private reception Saturday. It features the work of Norman Akers, a KU visual art professor and member of the Osage Nation, as well as the gallery’s eponym, Edgar Heap of Birds, a KU alum and member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Nations.
This comes on the heels of Heap of Birds’ artwork being vandalized last year. The piece, “Native Hosts,” was selected as KU’s 2021 Common Work of Art. With five aluminum panels placed on the Spencer Art Museum’s lawn, “Native Hosts” draws attention to the five nations who originally inhabited the land now known as Kansas: the Kaw, Kickapoo, Potawatomi, Ne Me Ha Ha Ki, and Ioway.
“The significance of Edgar’s work being exhibited here is ineffable,” says Tweesna Rose Mills, co-chair of KU’s First Nations Student Association (FNSA). The organization was active in condemning the vandalism of Heap of Birds’ work. “This exhibit establishes a permanent space for Indigenous artists here at KU and that’s what makes it remarkable. It’s about having Indigenous representation here on campus.”
FNSA works to create spaces of belonging for Indigenous students on the KU campus, often focusing on cultural activities and artistic expression. For Heap of Birds, art is a way of honoring his personal and tribal identity.
“The significant outcome of the extended Native art portal of ‘Indigenous Space’ is to welcome, nurture, and support particularly young Indigenous artists while giving them a place to belong at the University of Kansas,” Heap of Birds says.
But sometimes, this belonging can be hard to build. Indigenous communities are often underrepresented in the mainstream art world, but not for lack of content or quality. Native artwork can be rich with the deep-rooted ways of knowing and traditional ecological knowledge that’s survived through centuries of oppression and assimilation.
That’s why Akers says spaces specifically designed to uplift Indigenous work, such as the Edgar Heap of Birds Family Gallery, can be so impactful.
“Native artists working today are making art that engages in critical dialogue about cultural, environmental, and social issues about the world we live in. As an Osage artist, I hope to express that our ways are continually moving forward,” Akers says. “I’m so pleased to have a role in Edgar’s vision for increasing the awareness of Native peoples and art on the KU campus.”
Art and storytelling is deeply intertwined with many Indigenous cultures. It can be a way to build community and find acceptance — especially through a medium as vulnerable as art — which can lead to healing.
This philosophy guides the work of FNSA and many artists throughout Indian Country.
“Our artworks reflect our Indigenous identities and where we come from, which is why it’s important for Native artists in Lawrence to tell our stories of who we are through our artistic expressions,” Mills says.
“We all come from different places. That’s what makes Lawrence unique: the vast variety of Indigenous cultures and knowledges that can be shared.”
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Jordan Winter (she/her), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, is a 2019 KU grad with degrees in journalism and political science.