Docents at the new ’Uba Seo—Nisenan Arts and Culture art gallery on Broad Street in Nevada City are preparing for their grand opening event July 10. The new exhibition will feature artwork created via collaboration between members of the Nevada City Rancheria Nisenan tribe and local artists; their works share the stories and history of the Nisenan. The gallery, located in the Odd Fellows building that has been an art gallery for decades, is a further step in raising awareness in the tribe’s ongoing effort to regain federal status.
Shelly Covert, spokesperson for the Nevada City Nisenan tribe and Executive Director of CHIRP, the California Heritage: Indigenous Research Project, explained that the show, Destruction of the Land, Destruction of the People, will showcase primarily non-native artists exploring environmental themes, such as threats to the Yuba River. Yuba, as it happens, is the only local place-name that is Nisenan in origin, from ’Uba, according to Covert. Together with Mira Clark, an artist and art coordinator through the Visibility through Art (VTA) initiative, Covert worked with area artists through a months-long program of understanding the culture and treading carefully around issues of appropriation.
Covert asked, “How do you get artists to make what you want them to make?” Because there are fewer than 200 tribe members and the tribe’s own history has not been widely shared or reflected, she said, “It is up to us to have our stories told.”
Visibility Through Art begins
Over coffee in 2017, Covert and Clark had discussed the question of how to get more recognition for the tribe, and the idea for VTA was hatched. It’s a fine line, according to Covert, between how to showcase native art and allowing non-natives to produce art that is non-appropriative — a result that is achieved by hours of time spent between artists and members of the tribe telling stories and sharing history. Without this intense collaboration, the art would be merely appropriation, they agreed.
Clark expressed gratitude to the Nevada City Rancheria for trusting the non-native artists, “and I do not say that lightly,” she said in a video about the VTA. “To educate the public through these stories the tribe has shared— it’s the first time there is a presence, in modern times, downtown!”
Through some twists and turns during the COVID-19 shutdown, VTA and CHIRP were able to secure the lease for the Odd Fellows gallery. “It’s a part of our mission just to have [a] face on the street, and people walk by and see something in the window,” said Covert. Coincidentally, or as fate would have it, the Nisenan once called the Nevada City area ‘Ustomah. The village was home to some 2,000 Nisenan, part of a network of villages along Deer Creek. The Odd Fellows Lodge 16, built in 1873, took the name “Oustomah” and had the name emblazoned on the sidewalk. Now, 148 years later, the gallery has turned over its blank walls to CHIRP and the artists who will continue to tell the Nisenan story in the ‘Ustomah village.
Art is Education
Clark is one of the artists featured in the show. She collaborated with artist Andy Cerrona on “Trash Salmon,” a large salmon carved from a block of pink Styrofoam that was pulled from the Yuba River. She also collaborated with artist Jessa Hurst on two pieces of “trash art” made with salvaged recyclables and either acrylic on canvas or epoxy resin, showing the effects of pollution in the local area.
Artist Chula Gemignani spent more than a hundred hours creating her acrylic on canvas work, a surreal narrative piece based on a story that Covert told her about growing up in this area. Their conversation went back and forth about the Bullards Bar Dam and how it looms large in the view of local Nisenan, as the reservoir covered what was once the burning grounds for tribal cremations and burns. The dam is the focus of Gemignani’s painting, finished with Covert’s approval.
“This piece is to remind us that where we recreate is actually sacred space,” Gemignani said. “The waterways [are] lifegiving. The dams are disrespectful. I wanted to portray the heavy footprint that the dam poses in nature.”
Covert reminds the public that, “We are seeking to have our federal recognition restored,” a fact which hampers the tribe’s self-determination and access of funding sources. Through an oversight decades back, the tribe was left off the federal rolls and has been campaigning to reclaim recognition for their existence. “Art has just been an incredible way to raise the visibility of our people,” said Covert.
The opening reception for ’Uba Seo–Nisenan Arts and Culture and the VTA 2021 show, “Destruction of the Land, Destruction of the People,” takes place Saturday, July 10, from 6-9 p.m. at 225 Broad Street, Nevada City. The reception is free and open to the public; a good will donation is asked at the door. Learn more about ’Uba Seo Gallery at https://chirpca.org/uba-seo.