The exhibition Water Language brings together new works by American artists Shanai Haana Matteson (b. 1982) and Oscar Tuazon (b. 1975). The two artists have a long-term engagement in their respective approaches with collaborative work and issues regarding water equity, climate resilience and social justice. Matteson is a co-founder of the Water bar and Public studio, a community storefront in Northern Minneapolis, and she is involved in the imagination of new forms of platforms for artists to research in collaboration with other kinds of practitioners working in
the environmental sciences and water resource fields. On his side, Oscar Tuazon, for more than a decade now, has dedicated most of his work and life to the Water School, both a functional artwork and an experimental school for students of all ages to engage in dialogue and collaborative work with water, first in Los Angeles, then in Nevada, in Minnesota and extending elsewhere.
Matteson and Tuazon met a few years ago while they both took part in the environmental, public health, and civil rights battles arising in the opposition to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in South and North Dakota alongside the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Reservation, and more recently in the opposition to the construction of Line 3 Pipeline in Minnesota and White Earth Territory where Matteson herself grew up. Inspired by the Native American activist, economist and environmentalist Winona LaDuke, who has devoted her life to advocating for Indigenous control of their homelands, natural resources, and cultural practices, Matteson and Tuazon, have joined these struggles with the tools they have at hand, as artists.
The exhibition at Cibrián in San Sebastian was conceived as a conversation between the two both in the space of the gallery, and literally, within the publication that the gallery is producing for the show. As, they put it there:
Oscar: The lessons of indigenous ecology are really essential right now to maintaining health of our environment, whether that’s in Minnesota, or in San Sebastian. The deep generational knowledge
of how water moves underground is something that science is catching up to now. And in terms
of forest ecosystems, how healthy forests function..., western science has far to go to just to understanding some of the basic precepts that indigenous people have been talking about for
a long, long time. So in contrast to thinking about global systems and global economies, we are
at a point where it becomes necessary to reinvest in local knowledge. That, to me, is the core understanding: water connects us all, and we belong to the water where we live. It could be an essential part of our education and our sense of belonging in the world to get to know the water
we drink. Shanai, your public artwork Water Bar demonstrates this in a really profound way. You only serve water. And so people are encouraged to experience a place through tasting it. It is simultaneously essential and so ethereal.That place-based knowledge is there. We have to be conscious of how that knowledge gets distributed. Because there’s also a kind of extractivism, and extractive practices include knowledge extraction. If ecosystems are going to be actually restored, it can’t be at the expense of local knowledge.
Shanai: A kind of capitalist or colonialist mindset can permeate people, their understandings, even of the culture of activism or so that it becomes extractive or appropriative. And that’s something that is talked about a lot. I think I try to be very conscious of that, and that means always reflecting on what frameworks I’m working through or seeing through. It’s really about challenging myself and others around me to not continue in those ways that are extractive or exploitive or that erase the contributions of indigenous people. And also I always have to have respect for everything that is not for me. There’s a lot of things that are kept within native communities and that should be respected, there’s ways of doing things, there’s practices and protocols and some of them are open and some of them are not. And there’s a history of violence that underscores why that is important. But there’s always work to do. The word belonging is strange, but all of us have a really deep connection to land and water if we can access that. We don’t need to appropriate another culture in order to find our connection.
Language is a really important thing. Just like you said, Oscar, the indigenous ecologies are
really vital for the future health of this planet, the people and the land. And I think that a lot of
that is embedded in language and so I believe I need to kind of supporting indigenous language revitalization in the ways that I can. It’s something that I think is important. And even the ways that we do that in our day to day... I’ve been trying to, I’m going to start taking a missionary language class, like there’s a online language table that everyone’s invited to join. I want to figure out how we incorporate Anishinaabe language into more of the work we’re doing here in the land.
Water language, the title and project for this exhibition of Shanai Haana Matteson and Oscar Tuazon at Cibrián in San Sebastian, is first and foremost an invitation to keep this conversation going, to make it become even more collective, and vital.