Two stained pale blankets hang from the ceiling by wires. Three men pass by and they sway towards the wall, as though deferring to the gallery visitors.
The blankets are covered in rows of bright, patterned letters. They are hung in the entryway to the group exhibition Monarchs: Brown and Native Contemporary Artists in the Path of the Butterfly, on view in the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art until June 2.
Artist Gina Adam’s series, “Its Honor is Hereby Pledged,” reprints treaties from early in the United States’ history, 1778-1871, with cut letters sewn onto antique quilts. The quilts hang two feet from the wall, with the traditional backing on display. The design of the quilt face is turned to the wall.
The space between the quilt and the wall is enough to show a curious viewer there is more on the other side, a quilted design and text, but not enough to see it in full. The sewn lines that hold each letter to the fabric show through to the other side; the only way to read the back in full is to decipher the imprints of the letters from the front, backwards.
Initially the quilts appear colorful and light; the prints of each letter are pleasing and joyful, the disparate patterns display childlike optimism. Each letter is carefully sewn around by a wavering, machine-stitched line that follows the outline of every letter, then curls off and on to the next.
The initial sweetness sours as the viewer attempts to read the quilts, which are representations of the text of treaties between the United States and neighboring nations; the Mexican government and Indigenous nations. The text is made difficult to read by the patterns of each individual letter and its low contrast to the parchment-colored backing; some letters disappear into the background.
Quilts are strongly tied to a narrative of “women’s work,” and are reminiscent of early American history, during which time one of the main roles of women in the European family unit was as mender. Those quilts chosen by Adams date to around the times of the treaties. Adam’s lettered interventions infuse them with the social happenings of their birth – both patches and scars.
Though they hang in the gallery, Adams’ quilts have not lost their use-value. The lettered interventions change the character of the blankets but don’t detract from their original purpose.
The shift of the treaty from parchment and ink to a sewn quilt is what art critic Lucy Lippard called a “material reversal – a resilient and flexible object that is hard-core, even lethal,” when she wrote an introduction to Adams’ first exhibition at the Nerman in 2015 titled Gina Adams: Inherited Heartbeats.
The Fort Laramie Treating of 1851, featured on one quilt on display, created land boundaries for eight Native American Nations; Cheyenne, Crow, Arapaho, Sioux, Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara and Assiniboine among the plains states. It also allowed settlers to travel through the land, and roads to be built on it by the United States government in exchange for payment. The treaty was especially difficult to interpret at its inception as it was authored by the United States government in English. Though the eight nations chose leaders to sign the treaty, there was little effort to fully translate the meaning of it for those chosen.
The treaty was almost immediately broken. Settlers moved into Colorado, land designated to Arapaho and Cheyenne peoples, and began mining. Pressures from colonizers settling and killing bison en-masse, an important life source for Plains nations, caused intertribal fighting as territory and food became scarce.
Many of the treaties that Adams’ work re-presents found similar fates. According to the Nerman Museum plaque next to her work, “of all 365 treaties, nearly all were broken, nullified, or amended.”
The beauty in the work is also the crux of it. The looped, scrawling sewn lines that perforate the fabric slice through words on the other side of the fabric, undermining the legibility of both sides. The artist’s choice to make the treaty partially illegible reflects the reality of the original treaty – it was not necessarily fully understood by those signing it.