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Portland art exhibit provokes healing through remembering

Nika Bartoo-Smith
Underscore News + ICT

The smell of burning piñon pine filled the air at the Center for Native Arts & Cultures on May 10, lending itself to the dreamlike feeling of Matrilineal Memory, an exhibition by Hopi artist Mikaela Shafer.

Viewers’ eyes gravitated to the left corner of the room when they first entered the art gallery. There sat a rusted, antique bed frame covered in twigs and tumbleweeds. Three sheer, silk chiffon fabrics hang above the bed with printed images of the artist Mikaela Shafer as if she is floating above the bed, almost like an out of body experience as she watches from a dream.

Three sheer, silk chiffon fabrics with printed images of featured artist, Mikaela Shafer, hang above an antique metal bed frame in the corner of the gallery room of the Center for Native Arts & Cultures building. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)

“You know that dream state that you’re in when you’re waking up from a dream, or from a daydream, and you’re in between that here and now — I wanted to create this feeling of being in that kind of dream state,” said Shafer, Hopi, from the Coyote Clan.

In another section of the room, over a dozen silk chiffon screenprints of her art pieces hung from the ceiling with viewers invited to walk among and interact with them.

During the grand opening of her first solo exhibition on May 10, 2024, Mikaela Shafer mingled with a young girl and her family, discussing the meaning behind her work. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)

An artist and a mother

From painting on the walls as a young kid to making her own clothes in high school, Shafer has been an artist all her life. When she became a parent 16 years ago, Shafer put her art on the backburner to focus on motherhood. Now, Shafer is the mother of two daughters, 16 and 11.

As her daughters entered adolescence, Shafer’s partner encouraged her to start creating again, and she began to paint. Last fall, the Native Arts & Cultures Foundation (NACF) announced Shafer as one of the 15 LIFT – Early Career Support for Native Artists award recipients.

The year-long, $10,000 award includes professional development opportunities and marketing support for artist awardees.

“This is our first time partnering with a LIFT artist to hold an exhibition of their project in our space,” said Laura (Cales) Matalka, Chickasaw Nation, associate director of programs at NACF. “So this really deepens the work that NACF does to support emerging Native artists.”

At the art opening on May 10, Shafer provided a home-cooked meal for people to enjoy while experiencing her art. She spent nearly four hours before the opening in the kitchen with her dad, cooking 120 tamales and a Hopi stew made of hominy, meat and chilis that she says is common at family gatherings.

“When people are coming to this opening, I want them to feel like they are being welcomed into a familial space,” Shafer said.

Shafer will be at the final exhibition days, May 24, 25 and 31, and will host a discussion about her work on June 6.

She hopes Matrilineal Memory stirs something in viewers, and that they take part in the healing process that Shafer experienced while creating her work.

“I hope that it’s a healing experience for people to think about memories that they have that maybe they’ve been repressing or maybe they have shame about or maybe it’s a good memory,” Shafer said. “We need to share those memories and preserve them and connect through them.”

As one attendee made his way through the exhibit, he stopped to read the poems in between the framed artworks on the wall. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)

‘My belly is a galaxy’

Framed original paintings hang along the walls of a square room at the Center for Native Arts & Cultures, with a large tumbleweed sitting in the middle. The pieces are all part of the Matrilineal Memory exhibition, an exploration of what it means to heal.

“It’s about how people can hold generations of trauma within them, but they can also hold generations of strength,” Shafer said. “Each painting is kind of like an unboxing of a memory and then the healing and sewing it back together in my own way.”

Walking clockwise around the room, Shafer displayed her work to tell a story. It starts with the moon, followed by the sun rising over a desert landscape and fades back into the sky and the moon, according to Shafer.

The watercolor pieces are full of texture — layers of paper, thread stitches and dried kombucha leather, made from the culture of bacteria and yeast called a SCOBY, which is sometimes referred to as a “mother.”

“My Belly Is a Galaxy” is Shafer’s favorite piece of the collection. Shafer said it combines her desert homelands with the land near the ocean, where she lives now. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)

Between each piece, Shafer displayed some of her poetry, stitching all the work together.

My stomach feels like a galaxy

You are there,

and ancestors too

And everything is orbiting

so fast I lose my footing

and stumble into the street

Displayed next to the above poem is Shafer’s favorite piece: “My belly is a galaxy.” Burnt orange, olive green, mustard yellow and shades of blue crowd the frame.

To create this piece, Shafer hauled a generator out to the ocean in Seaview, Washington. She sewed on the beach, blending the colors of the desert with pieces of the ocean.

“It felt like I was connecting my homelands to the land that I live on now, the desert to the ocean,” Shafer said.

In creating each piece on display during the exhibition, Shafer focused on healing and reconnecting with her Hopi culture.

“It’s very important to heal yourself in order to heal your mother and grandmother so that you can preserve culture,” Shafer said. “It’s really important to do the work to heal ourselves so that future generations have stories of resilience.”

Now she has her own story of resilience and healing to pass on to her daughters.

This story is co-published by and ICT, a news partnership that covers Indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest. Funding is provided in part by Meyer Memorial Trust.

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