Museum of Contemporary Native Arts

Jolene Rickard

By Gail Tremblay

Jolene Rickard is a Tuscarora photographer and installation artist, curator, and visual historian. She currently teaches at Cornell University where she is Associate Professor of Art History. Powerful personal testimonies, art in global contexts, and visual culture studies inform her research and curatorial practice. Her art and scholarship critique a colonial discourse that seeks to marginalize Indigenous art and culture. Rickard served as a curator for the opening exhibits at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in 2004.

In 1997, Rickard built an installation that evoked the Tuscarora creation story. Shown in the exhibit, Godi’Nigoha’: The Woman’s Mind, her installation had two major elements, “Sky Woman Looks into the 21st Century” and  “Sky Woman Falls on Patriarchy.” Both made visual reference to the hole in the Celestial World through which Sky Woman fell to earth. Each used a large image of Rickard’s daughter’s eye looking through that opening. Branches of red whip circled the edges of the light boxes holding these images.  In “Sky Woman Looks into the 21st Century,” the eye is superimposed on dry cracked earth; desiccated land stares at the viewer. At the same time, this Indigenous child’s eye sees what is happening to the earth because of global warming. In “Sky Woman Falls on Patriarchy,” the eye is superimposed on an urban landscape. This city, built by colonizers who brought patriarchy into the matrilineal, matrilocal territories of the Tuscarora, obliterates a natural world that has supported Indigenous nations for centuries. The artist balances these bleak visions with red whip, a medicine plant used to make a tonic taken in the spring to cleanse and purify the body. Its presence could give people the energy to take care of and purify the land.

In 2000, Rickard created a multimedia installation called Corn Blue Room for the exhibit Reservation X: The Power of Place.  For this work, she hung braids of dry corn from the ceiling in a longhouse space she created using illuminated photographs mounted on black poles. This work explored the effects of modern technology on the Tuscarora Nation and “in particular the hydroelectric project that took a third of her community’s land.”[1] When Rickard was an infant, her mother placed her in front of a bulldozer to try to stop the construction that would flood the reservation. Consequently, she has always known land and resources are essential to the sovereignty of Indigenous nations. In her work, One Square Foot of Earth or One Square Foot of Real Estate—You Decide #2, Rickard revisits the subject of land. Built in 1993 and refurbished a decade later for Lifeworlds—Artscapes: Contemporary Iroquois Art, the installation was exhibited at the Museum der Weltkultren in Frankfurt, Germany.  In her statement for the catalogue, she wrote, “What’s left to mine from the intellectual terrain of land for an Indian woman? It’s a cliché—or that’s what a sharp cultural theorist would quip….Go ahead, take another chunk of my skin.”  For Rickard, the question of land is not tied to romantic stereotypes of Indians and the Earth—land is national territory that has supported life for generations. Her art reflects her commitment to Tuscarora sovereignty.


[1] National Museum of the American Indian, “Reservation X” Corn Blue Room, http://www.nmai.si.edu/exhibitions/reservation_x/artists/rickardN.htm