The past is real, and other signs of the times

The history of Western art is largely one of exclusivity: European and American art has, for the most part, been the province and the property of the white, rich and powerful.

Well, a current local, interactive installation — … of the Cave, at LIFT Contemporary — is based on exclusivity, too: You have to be a member of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee to participate in it.

Although some non-native historians insist that the Cherokee never lived in caves, the name of the exhibit comes from a term other groups of native people used to describe the Cherokee — a term that translates to “People of the Cave.”

Gallery owners Natalie Smith and Leon Grodski view the cave as a metaphor for rebirth, something they see happening in Cherokee every day. Smith says the concept for the piece came from a conversation she had with Chief Michael Hicks, who remarked, after hearing about the couple’s plans for LIFT’S international opening exhibit, that he’d like to see work by and about Cherokees.

Grodski says that Flight, LIFT’s inaugural show, took two years to curate. He then began, he says, to look around — to listen to “what is right here.”

… of the Cave opens in LIFT’s front gallery with works by 10 Cherokee artists, some emerging and some well known for traditional works. Using rebirth as their theme, all 10 have created pieces that challenged them conceptually.

The gallery’s second room is taken up with the installation. The walls, ceiling and floor of the space have been transformed into a literal, dimly lit cave covered with writings and drawings.

Interestingly, the construction of the cave mirrors the concept of the piece: Well-known male artists (using recycled wood) did the framework. A mix of ages and sexes molded the wire base, and an older man guided the group of young people who added the papier mache to complete the cave shape. The finished walls were painted gray, and any member of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee was invited to write or draw on the walls.

“Our purpose,” says Smith, who is Cherokee, “is to give everyone a voice. It is a record of this time, about caring about your life and history. We have a wide-open opportunity for all to be active in our renaissance, to direct our own future. We can take back our democratic tradition.”

Some of the inscriptions on the wall are intensely personal: “I am sinking.” “Quit pulling me down, things need to change.” “I’m frustrated because I can’t understand Tsalagi [the Cherokee language].”

Other contributions are more universal: “As long as the sacred fire burns, our people will live.” “The past is real.” “That which stays the same is of our name.”

Still others offer admonitions: “Be still, be quiet, be grateful.” “Emancipate your mind from mental slavery.” “Don’t forget the past.” “Enjoy life — it could be short.” “Let’s stand together, not apart.” “Think … speak.”

Images on the walls are varied: They range from stick-figure hunters and traditional masks and medicine turtles to smiley faces. There is a Thunderbird, and a simple circle that surrounds the four-directions symbol. According to Smith, those who have expressed their hopes and concerns on the wall range in age from 5 to 72. She reveals that many teenagers come to write in the cave, often leaving simply their names.

“It’s an affirmation,” she says. “Now they are a part of the show.”

[Connie Bostic is an Asheville-based artist and writer. Her work is currently showing as part of Road in Sight: Contemporary Art in North Carolina at Duke University.]

… of the Cave shows at LIFT Contemporary (516 Tsali Blvd., in Cherokee) through Saturday, Aug. 13. Open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Sundays from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. (free admission on Fridays from 4-7 p.m.). Call (828) 497-0707 or visit for more information.

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