Intermodal: Acknowledging Coastal Indigenous Communities

Courtney M. Leonard, 2018 National Artist Fellow

In a world of consumerism where we can buy anything with the click of a button, it is difficult to imagine a life where subsistence harvesting is ingrained in a modern community. Intermodal (BREACH: Logbook 19) is Courtney M. Leonard’s current exhibition at the Pomona College Museum of Art, in Claremont, California, that invites visitors to think about the impact of trade on the cultures of coastal indigenous communities. This is Leonard’s first solo exhibition on the West Coast. She is a 2018 Native Arts and Cultures Foundation (NACF) National Artist Fellow, and a member of the Shinnecock Nation from Long Island, New York. Her work is influenced by the relationship she has with the land and water as a Shinnecock person.

In a continuation of Leonard’s multi-year project “BREACH,” Intermodal (BREACH: Logbook 19) raises awareness about indigenous practices and water as a mode of transportation, a source of food, and a threatened resource. The word ‘intermodal’ is meant to acknowledge the import and export of trade that existed between indigenous peoples prior to the imposition of laws and borders. Leonard has traveled extensively to learn from coastal indigenous communities about their cultural and subsistence harvesting traditions. During an interview with NACF, Leonard explained that when she started “BREACH”, she realized that many people were not familiar with the Shinnecock Nation. “I realized that if no one is listening to Shinnecock, and what we’re going through, there might be similarities with other indigenous communities to amplify our voices,” she noted. Over the past five years, “BREACH” has evolved into a logbook documenting historical ties to water among communities who share the path of the whale.

Intermodal (BREACH: Logbook 19) opens with a Pomo burden basket from the museum’s collection. Mindful of the value and energy that is held in an object, Leonard selected the basket to “live” with her art as a way of acknowledging the indigenous cultures of Southern California. “To a certain degree these are our ancestors in different forms,” she said. The basket is suspended from the ceiling, beginning the conversation of intermodality, or the import and export of trade. As you step into the exhibit space, you see red walls, reimagined ceramic fishing nets on pallets, a shipping container, a pallet of sperm whale teeth, and clay pipes filled with oysters.

Leonard’s attention to detail is unparalleled. She explains that the exhibition opens with the burden basket as a way to reclaim the indigenous narrative, and challenge the negative connotation of the English word ‘burden’ associated with the Pomo basket – an item that empowered indigenous people to feed their families. Over time the basket has deteriorated leaving an opening at its base. Leonard notes that the basket mimics her conical fishing baskets, woven in a way that leaves visual geometrical holes so the viewer can pass through just as a fish species could pass through. The design of the fishing basket is intentional, negating the English word ‘trap’ by respecting cultural fishing practices. “The species offers itself to us so that we can continue to feed, but we don’t block the path of the entire species,” she adds.

Red paint drips down the walls symbolizing blood spilled from a whale harvest in Alaska, and the dynamic layers associated with indigenous peoples who maintain harvesting rights. Leonard notes that the majority of whales killed per year are struck by shipping vessels that fuel American consumerism in comparison to the small number of whales harvested for subsistence by coastal indigenous communities. Clay pipes throughout the installation invite visitors to think about alternative ways to offset lead contamination in our water and aquatic life by reverting to the use of clay pipes. The clusters of oyster shells in the red clay pipes are tied into shaker bundles to represent the cultural importance of shells to coastal indigenous peoples, and to demonstrate a natural filter for removing contaminants from the water.

The exhibition also includes a video component with early twentieth-century photographs of indigenous life and work in the Southern California area, and a pallet or “offering” from one sperm whale. The ceramic whale teeth are neatly arranged on a pallet ready to be shipped, a constant theme in Leonard’s larger multi-year project “BREACH” that is an ongoing dialogue with indigenous communities who are struggling to sustain themselves with limited access to the environment that shaped their cultures. Leonard will continue her research of coastal communities this summer during a Rauschenberg residency on the small barrier island Captiva off the west coast of Florida.

Intermodal is on exhibit at the Pomona College Museum of Art through May 19, 2019.