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Martha Whittington examines the human experience in ‘Exchange’

Sculpture artist explores themes of commoditization via the lens of Native American culture

Thursday July 2, 2015 04:00 am EDT

Artist Martha Whittington likes to hone in on the details. Every piece in her new show at Dashboard Co-op, Exchange, was carefully handcrafted in her studio. After studying early indigenous techniques, she began to build freestanding sculptures as a way to explore the commoditization of Native American culture.


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The works resemble original pieces, but are made from modern resources as to call out the European faux and Native American-inspired goods.

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“In particular, I was focusing on the North American natives and when the Europeans started trading,” she says. “They had depleted their resources for their fancy hats. That’s where I got the idea about commerce and the exchange of inferior goods for something that was very laborious. In Europe, the Industrial Revolution was going on and everything was mass-produced. That’s where it began.”

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In line with Exchange, part of the Artist Project Grant from the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs (OCA), Whittington’s work focuses on sculptures that showcase themes of hard labor, technology’s influence on the workforce, and the unsung characters of the blue-collar industries, past and present.

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“The hard part with this work is that I didn’t want it to become trite and look like dream catchers. I wanted to pay tribute to the culture, but also look at the removal of their culture,” Whittington says. “The assimilation; this was the most interesting part during my research. There were the training lodges. They would almost do a sweatshop and hire an entire tribe of women weavers and then have them use Asian patterns.”

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Along with a sound element from composer Rae Long, the exhibition features a large drum that took Whittington two weeks to build, and Native American burial scaffolding that borrows its techniques from different tribes. Whereas a piece may include elk hide and look authentic, Whittington says they’re actually coming from more present-day home improvement store chains, further adding to the theme of commoditization.

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“Yes, they are contemporary materials like poplar wood from Home Depot or stainless bolts that are polished, but they have a contemporary spin in that they are abstract,” she says, adding that her focus is making the idea of trade (or exchange) tangible. ” ... What did it look like, what did it feel like, what did it sound like if you were one of the original people being attracted to a shiny object.”