Water, memory, exchange: Marianne Nicolson at Yale Union

Marianne Nicolson's "A Feast of Light and Shadows" is a fitting last exhibition for Yale Union as ownership of the building transfers to the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation.

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Dancing shadows and a turquoise blue illusion of running water currently light up the top floor of the Yale Union (YU) building. Black-and-white archival photographs and enamelware bowls fill the gallery in between the cerulean reflections. First Nations artist Marianne Nicolson channels her personal connection to her Kwakwaka’wakw heritage and the tools, technologies, and space of the colonizer to weave a compelling narrative. A Feast of Light and Shadows reframes the artist’s Native tradition of potlatch into a modern context. The work is on view at Yale Union through August 29th and is the organization’s last exhibition in the space at 800 SE 10th Ave.

Installation View. Marianne Nicolson, A Feast of Light and Shadows, Yale Union (2021) Photo by Luiza Lukova.

Concurrent with the artist’s use of light as a vessel for feast, and feast as an action for change, this exhibition also transcends its symbolic significance in witness to a physical exchange of territory. In July of 2020, during the height of the Black Lives Matter Movement, Yale Union announced its dissolution after a decade of public happenings. In a historic repatriation of property, the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation (NACF) will gain physical ownership of the Yale Union building in September, 2021 wherein it will be renamed the Center for Native Arts and Cultures (CNAC). The actual title of transfer was executed in February of 2021. That agreement left room for YU to complete their programming before shutting their doors. The end of A Feast of Light and Shadows will serve as the marker noting the closing of Yale Union as it was once known. Therefore, the honorable gravity of a generations old Kwakwaka’wakw ceremony, here recontextualized by Nicolson, settles on the space for one final farewell. 

Potlatches are known as “performative wintertime ceremonies of the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples based on sharing wealth and fortifying social contracts, kinships and reciprocities.” This ancient practice was criminalized by the Canadian government from 1885 to 1951 and was seen by its practitioners as an attempt to sever and erase cultural bonds that spanned decades prior. The Indigenous tribes on the Pacific Northwest Coast suffered arrests and unwarranted raids perpetrated by the colonizers who saw the potlatch practice as a direct threat to white capitalism. Ultimately failing in their attempts to eradicate these ceremonies, the ban did force Kwakwaka’wakw peoples to hide, adapt and reinvent the practice until its re-emergence in the mid-20th century. What Nicolson demonstrates in this exhibition is precisely the resilience and embodiment of the ritual exchange of the potlatch, past and present. 

The north wall of the exhibition is lined with four framed images of Kwakwaka’wakw tribespeople in various poses of celebration. Witnessing the communal gathering in preparation for these events, frozen in photographic time, feels privileged and ever more sacred. In contrast to the smaller images, a singular photograph dominates the eastern wall of the building – it depicts James Hamdzid, Nicolson’s great-great-grandmother’s brother, posing with a Dzunukwa (the Kwakwaka’wakw Basket Ogress, a “wild woman of the woods”) feast dish. 

Installation View. Marianne Nicolson, A Feast of Light and Shadows, Yale Union (2021) Photo by Luiza Lukova.

Hamdzid towers almost as large as the impressive wooden dish into which the distinctive face of the Ogress with her trademark pursed lips has been carved and painted. His gaze appears to be watching both the revered vessel and, extending into the gallery, Nicolson’s own intimate retelling of his lived experiences. At his feet are five rows of ten enamel bowls, turned basin up. The bowls were popularized in the 19th century’s push towards global trade — ready-made goods that were assimilated into Native culture and took on a more spiritual interpretation in the process. They were used to bring members of the Kwakwaka’wakw people together as one, facilitating the sharing of food and goods and creating a collective experience. Lined as they are on the floor here, they do the same for gallery viewers, bringing individuals together into this space where they are confronted by this history and sacrament. 

Installation View. Marianne Nicolson, A Feast of Light and Shadows, Yale Union (2021) Photo by Luiza Lukova.

The iconic windows that line the far two walls of YU are fully coated in a translucent blue plexiglass and vinyl stencils hand-drawn by Nicolson. The 120 panes of turquoise color are adorned with symbols of both colonizer and colonized – we see for example an image of the “peace bringing” eagle of the United States reflected parallel to the traditional Native markings and characters we saw in the documented photographs. 

Installation View of enamelware bowls. Marianne Nicolson, A Feast of Light and Shadows, Yale Union (2021) Photo by Luiza Lukova.

Light itself, however, remains the artist’s primary medium. The summer sun that currently floods through the building’s windows is precisely at its zenith. When late afternoon hits, the sun seeps in and drowns the room in warmth. Harnessing this diffusion of rays, the overwhelming color that permeates through the west-facing windows and onto the floor reflects an intentional symmetry, that of being submerged in water and bathed in blue light. The blue tint saturates the room and implicates the viewer in the spectacle, it likewise exposes the figures and the whole group becomes witnesses to the moment of exchange. 

In Kwakwaka’wakw tradition, water is emblematic of both life and death; it is a cultural pillar. Nicolson dramatically shifts the atmospheric glow in the gallery and creates space for a different interpretation of the scene. Nicolson suspends her visitors in the environment, putting under scrutiny our modern fight for survival in a collapsing ecological world. One is left to meditate on the incongruity of feeling at once both so light and weightless in this artificial wash, and, at the same time, so heavily burdened by its signification. 

Installation View. Marianne Nicolson, A Feast of Light and Shadows, Yale Union (2021) Photo by Luiza Lukova.

The intentionality of the exhibition bears the brunt weight of a history of oppression. In showcasing this conversation in the Yale Union space, Nicolson reckons with the building’s own colonial past as a former industrial laundry site. A Feast of Light and Shadows provides another strata in this discourse. The bouncing shapes created by Nicolson’s window imagery reflect harshly onto scars delved into the wood from years of heavy labor. 

Just as water is sacred to the Kwakwaka’wakw, so is land. Body is synonymous with home is synonymous with land and as the home of this exhibition, Nicolson asserts a balance of agency wherein she becomes the occupier. She seems to be asking, can the building separate from its past and atone for itself? 

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This question falls apropos with respect to the imminent dissolution of Yale Union’s non-profit status. Noting this monumental transition, serendipitous is a word that comes to mind in describing Nicolson’s inaugural and only show with YU. Curator Hope Svenson tells me that this exhibition has been in motion since 2018 and was not originally slated to be the organization’s culmination. The work had been planned to debut in the spring of 2020 but unexpected COVID closures necessitated the pushback of the site-specific installation. This deterrent seems to have worked favorably for the exhibition — it would have been difficult to welcome anyone other than a Native-identifying visual artist in the space prior to the building’s public transfer to the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation. 

While the NACF played no active role in the realization of this final event, they supported the exhibition and graciously donated the use of their building. I was able to speak with Lulani Arquette, CEO of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, about her vision for the building and organization in the coming years. The NACF’s plan for utilization is two-fold: the first phase consists of engaging with the building in its current condition through 2022;  phase two is set for 2023-2024 and will take on an extensive retrofitting and renovation of the building. 

As the national headquarters for the NACF, the Center for Native Arts and Cultures will debut as early as September of this year with the announcement of new SHIFT- Transformative Change and Indigenous Arts grant awardees, whose work will subsequently be presented at the CNAC. In terms of larger planned programming, Arquette envisions this taking root in the first quarter of 2022 with a mix of exhibitions, performances, panel presentations, and seminars featuring Native artists locally, regionally, and nationally.

The vision for the CNAC is at its core a place to practice culture and make art, an area for ceremony and celebration, a vibrant gathering place for Indigenous artists. A Feast of Light and Shadows presents to viewers an exciting advance in this direction. Nicolson demonstrates courage in her private sovereignty just as she fuels the momentum of the larger Land Back Movement. In tandem with this recognition of the value of Native property ownership in urban areas across the nation, Marianne Nicolson’s transformation of this historically fraught building into a visceral celebration of ancient Native practices more than rightfully honors and preempts this timely transition of land and space. 


A Feast of Light and Shadows is on view at Yale Union (800 SE 10th Ave) through August 29th. The exhibition is open from 4pm-8pm on Wednesdays and Thursdays and from 2pm-6pm on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.

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