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‘Voices from the Rez’ Showcases Regional Native American Artists

The exhibition is on display at La Jolla Historical Society Wisteria Cottage Gallery from June to September
Philipp Scholz Rittermann

By Seth Combs

Voices from the Rez - Johnny Bear Contreras

Johnny Bear Contreras in his home studio on the San Pasqual Reservation

Philipp Scholz Rittermann

Naming a piece of art I’m No Tonto is about as blatant as it gets. For Johnny Bear Contreras, however, naming his new rotary cast resin sculpture after the infamously and offensively named sidekick (“tonto” is Spanish for “stupid”) from The Lone Ranger has layer upon layers of meaning for him.

“I want people from all nations, all reservations, and all native peoples to see something in my work that, when they looked at it, said, ‘Man, we really know what he’s really talking about,’” Contreras says from his home studio on the San Pasqual Reservation. “You know, either the atrocities that have taken place or the beautiful things that have never been embellished on. No one’s peeled that back and really done something like a fine art piece in bronze and statuary.”

Voices from the Rez - Bird Dreams

Bird Dreams XXVIII by Gail Werner

Photographed by Philipp Scholz Rittermann

As a member of the San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians, he points out that San Diego has been historically slow-moving when it comes to representing and acknowledging Indigenous creators of fine art. Dana Hicks, deputy director and collections manager for the La Jolla Historical Society, knows this and has made it something of a personal mission to correct it.

“I think the public needs to see that there’s not one stereotypical native story,” says Hicks, who curated Voices from the Rez, a new group exhibition of regional Native American artists June 4 through September 4 at the La Jolla Historical Society Wisteria Cottage Gallery.

Hicks has been working with Native American communities for almost three decades; she wanted to showcase not only the vast array of talent in San Diego, but a “spectrum of mediums.”

Voices from the Rez - Peon Players

Peon Players by Robert Freeman

Photographed by Philipp Scholz Rittermann

“My thought was, I just want everybody to see what I’ve had the privilege to see over all these years and get native people out here,” she says. “I don’t want it to be my voice at all. I want it to be native voices.”

Lauren Lockhart, the historical society’s executive director, believes visitors will be taken with the breadth and quality of the artwork. “It will also provoke the viewer to think, ‘I wasn’t aware of this. And what else don’t I know sure about the history of the Indigenous communities here? What else don’t I know about the history of this land that I’m standing on right now?’ Because even our historical society is on the ancestral homeland of the Kumeyaay.”

Voices from the Rez - Oversized Butterfly Coat

Oversized Butterfly Coat, Turtleneck and Culottes by Jamie Okuma

Photographed by Philipp Scholz Rittermann

In addition to I’m No Tonto, which will be displayed in the Wisteria Cottage Gallery on Prospect Street, Contreras has plans for another sculptural piece, tentatively titled Return of the Kumeyaay Creators, which will be what he calls a “modern depiction” of the tribe’s traditional creation story of two twins. There will also be works from regional artists such as Gerald Clark (charred prints), Jamie Okuma (fashion), and Gail Werner (monotypes); and accompanying public programming that includes a reading with Cahuilla/Cupeño writer Gordon Johnson, a concert from blues musician Tracy Lee Nelson (Luiseño/Diegueño/ Kumeyaay) and an artist talk with Contreras.

“There was time when people would ask me, ‘What motivates you?’” asks Contreras, somewhat rhetorically. “And it was hard for me to pin it to one thing because at the end of the day, what doesn’t inspire me, you know?

Voices from the Rez - Music Basket

Music Basket by Tracy Lee Nelson

Photographed by Philipp Scholz Rittermann

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