‘Two-Spirit’ Art in NYC

  • Zuni dough bowl, circa 1880, by We'wha (1849-1896). (All photos by Sean Parrish for Voices of NY)

Numerous Native Americans from different tribal backgrounds, and their allies, gathered June 14 at the John Molloy Gallery on the Upper East Side for the opening reception of “We’wha and the Two-Spirit Tradition, Then and Now.” The unique gallery exhibit highlights the role of Two-Spirit people in traditional Native American society. Both rare 19th century works and those by contemporary artists are on view through July 14.

The term Two-Spirit means “somebody that has both female (feminine) spirit and male (masculine) spirit,” explains Two-Spirit artist, Mona Medicine Crow. According to Duane Brayboy, writing in Indian Country Today, “The Native American belief is that some people are born with the spirits of both genders and express them so perfectly. It is as if they have two spirits in one body.” According to Rishona J. Slutchuk, writing in The Perspective of Two-Spirit Aboriginal People: “In order to overcome some of the negative interpretations, they selected a new title which would redefine themselves and, at the same time, shed any previous derogatory elements; the term they chose was two-spirited – the literature also shows that the purpose of the new term was to reclaim the spiritual side of ‘two-spiritedness.’ Despite this, homosexuality continues to dominate the definition.”

The exhibit includes the extremely rare work of the two best-known 19th century Two-Spirit artists, We’wha (Zuni) and Arroh-ah-och (Laguna Pueblo), along with contemporary Two-Spirit artists: Iakowi:he’ne Oakes (Mohawk), Sheldon Raymore (Lakota/Cheyenne River Sioux), Thomas Huakaas (Lakota) and Mona Medicine Crow (Crow).

Gallery owner Molloy spoke at the opening of the exhibit about his fascination for We’wha: “She was completely accepted as a member of her community, in fact given a special status. She was invited to the White House in 1886 to create indigenous art for the National Museum and to meet former President Grover Cleveland. Yet, the press always referred to her as the ‘Indian Princess’ and nobody ever referred to her gender ambiguity.” Molloy observed: “The fact that Native America was so far ahead of the dominant culture in terms of their understanding of people’s sexuality and gender preference is something that is remarkable.”

The contemporary artists in attendance at the opening expressed the importance of cultural preservation and how it has inspired the creation of their art and designs.

Raymore, a second-generation tipi maker from the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, spoke in an interview with Voices of NY about his inspiration for the making of his art.

Of one work at the exhibit he said, “This piece is inspired by the PrEPahHontoz Tipi Project Winter: Waníyetu Wakáǧa Wipátȟapi, [which] in Lakota means ‘Produce Tipi Covers Winter.’ Each of the symbols represents a year in HIV/AIDS history and how it has affected Native Americans.”

Oakes said her inspiration is “revival and sustaining culture through art and design, but also adapting to innovative and modern design.” She ended by saying she wished that there would be more events like the exhibit, so that they “become more common.”

“We’wha and the Two-Spirit Tradition, Then and Now” is on view through July 14 at the John Molloy Gallery, 49 East 78th St., Suite 2B, New York, johnmolloygallery.com.

Sean Parrish is a Knight-CUNY Journalism Summer Fellow and intern at Voices of NY.

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