Sitting in her Muscogee Creek language class, Elisa Harkins had a thought: how could she carry on this transfer of knowledge? Something meant to be absorbed slowly, especially in today’s fast-paced world? In her first solo exhibition, Teach Me a Song, the Native American artist engages in continuation and preservation through special garments that she created from a series of exchanges that require time and attention: learning a song.
Harkins had three collaborators: Louis Gray, an Osage elder who shared the American Indian Movement anthem, “The AIM Song.” Mateo Galindo, a Mexican American artist who taught Harkins “Sunpit,” his own sci-fi guitar composition. And Don Tiger, one of the last fluent speakers of Muscogee Creek and Harkins’ language teacher. His “No. 1 Sofke Sipper” features rattles from turtle shell shakers.
After recording the songs, Harkins fashioned an accompanying shoulder cover. “There’s a lot of questioning and worrying about how to do it correctly,” she reflects, on her process. Harkins focused on examining certain elements and contexts of each song.
For “Sunpit,” she contemplated what a shawl might resemble in a dystopian future: a rayon puffy vest, with “Creator” stitched onto a patch. For “The AIM Song,” Harkins looked at early era photographs of the movement.
Noticing that many men and women draped their shoulders with an upside-down American flag — a sign of distress — she emulated that and added fringe. Her turquoise shawl for “No. 1 Sofke Sipper” came from her own naming ceremony and includes Seminole patchwork.
“The biggest thing that I’ve learned is you have to give everyone time and space — [it was] really important to this project,” Harkins says, adding that she plans to continue the exchanges through the future — and, indeed, their transfer of knowledge.
Teach Me A Song runs until February 15, 2020 // Western Front // Tickets