La Jolla Historical Society hopes ‘the veil comes off’ Native American culture with new exhibit

Work by artist Gail Werner will be in the La Jolla Historical Society's “Voices from the Rez” exhibit.
(Philipp Scholz Rittermann)

Though the La Jolla Historical Society is an organization that helps preserve the past, its upcoming exhibit is a pivot that seeks to remind viewers of the continuing presence of Native Americans in Southern California and the art some of them create.

The exhibit, called “Voices from the Rez,” will be on view June 4 through Sept. 4 at the Historical Society’s Wisteria Cottage Gallery. It is curated by Dana Hicks, the Historical Society’s deputy director and collections manager.

Artists include Chuck Contreras, Gail Werner, Gerald Clarke, Gordon Johnson, James Luna, Jamie Okuma, Johnny “Bear” Contreras, Robert Freeman, Sandra Okuma and Tracy Lee Nelson. All live on reservations in San Diego and Riverside counties and work across media ranging from painting and sculpture to fashion, narrative writing and music.

Jamie Okuma will have work on display in the “Voices from the Rez” exhibit at La Jolla’s Wisteria Cottage Gallery.
Jamie Okuma will have work on display in the “Voices from the Rez” exhibit at the La Jolla Historical Society’s Wisteria Cottage Gallery.
(Philipp Scholz Rittermann)

“People often refer to Native Americans in past tense or say ‘They were.’ But they are not. These are people who are here now and with us today,” Hicks said. “The artwork in this exhibit will really reflect that. There are some very contemporary artists and we wanted to present their stories from a contemporary standpoint.”

The exhibit could have been approached as a history project, said La Jolla Historical Society Executive Director Lauren Lockhart, “but the focus was not about us interpreting the past but about celebrating their accomplishments and contributions right now today and letting that message come through in their artwork.”

In addition to the artworks, the artists were asked to write personal statements and provide significant quotes to create a narrative. A map will show the reservations the artists represent so visitors can connect the pieces to where they originated.

The artists’ statements are “really deeply personal … and really beautiful,” Lockhart said. “They tell their life stories and go beyond what we see in their artwork to tell a lot about their past.”

Gerald Clarke is among the artists to be featured in “Voices from the Rez” from June 4 to Sept. 4.
(Philipp Scholz Rittermann )

Hicks has worked with native people in Southern California “from Chumash to Kumeyaay and from Tongva to Cahuilla” for the past 30 years in various museum and education capacities. Given her experience and having put together a similar exhibit in Los Angeles, she was asked to produce “Voices from the Rez” by previous Historical Society Executive Director Heath Fox.

But Hicks said she didn’t want her voice in the exhibit at all and that her contribution was limited to one paragraph in the entryway to the gallery.

“I asked the artists what they wanted to say … and they started naturally telling their life stories,” she said. “Each artist has different thoughts about why they are doing their art and how it started.”

Hicks said she hopes “the veil comes off people’s eyes” when it comes to preconceived notions about local native tribes.

“When people come to see it, it will reveal some things about native people maybe they didn’t realize before and open up a different world,” she said. “With native communities and native people over the years, there tends to be a lot of stereotyping, and we want to change that.”

Lockhart said she hopes the exhibit will “inspire people to find connections” with native communities.

“People often refer to Native Americans in past tense or say ‘They were.’ But they are not. These are people who are here now and with us today. The artwork in this exhibit will really reflect that.”

— Dana Hicks, La Jolla Historical Society deputy director and collections manager

La Jolla sits on the ancestral homeland of the Kumeyaay tribe, and through this exhibition, Lockhart learned that the Kumeyaay creation story is connected to the water’s edge.

“The proximity to the water makes [the La Jolla Historical Society] geographically a fitting place to acknowledge the Kumeyaay,” Lockhart said. “It’s appropriate for us to celebrate the Kumeyaay culture and their long legacy of stewardship of this land.”

Lockhart said the show is intended to celebrate the range of artistic stylings and expression the artists offer and to be educational for its viewers.

“We hope visitors will see the show and think to themselves, ‘I had no idea there were so many reservations’ or ‘I wasn’t aware of this artist’s work’ and ask ‘What else don’t I know about native communities?’” she said. “We want them to want to learn more.”

An opening reception on Friday, June 3, will feature a blessing and bird singers and dancers.

The Historical Society will present three other events with the artists, in addition to the exhibit.

A “Meet the Artist” event with Johnny Contreras will begin at 6 p.m. Friday, June 17; a reading from the works of Johnson will be at 6 p.m. Sunday, July 10; and a musical evening with Nelson will be at 6 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 21.

‘Voices from the Rez’

When: Saturday, June 4, to Sunday, Sept. 4

Where: Wisteria Cottage Gallery, 780 Prospect St., La Jolla

Hours: Noon to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays

Cost: Free



12:41 p.m. May 25, 2022: This article has been updated to clarify Dana Hicks’ title.