“Continuity, Innovation and Resistance: The Art of Peter B. Jones,” an exhibit at the Syracuse University Art Museum, presents an array of works by an artist whose career spans well over 50 years.
The show, with its display of ceramic artworks, mostly stoneware and mixed-media earthenware, celebrates Haudenosaunee culture, reflects on conflicts between Haudenosaunee people and government authorities, offers the artist’s perspective on contemporary events.
Various pieces discuss the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Covid-19 epidemic, casinos in Indian Country, the tragic phenomenon of missing and murdered Indigenous women, with little accountability for perpetrators.
Most of all, the exhibit demonstrates Jones’s mastery of figurative ceramics. That’s evident in his portrayal of individual figures and in his thematic works.
This is a large exhibition whose portfolio extends back to pieces made almost 40 years ago. “Joy Bottle,” part of his “Indian Brand” series, satirizes marketing of products that uses the name or image of Indigenous people as foils. The vessel, shaped like a bottle of dishwashing liquid, has such an image on it.
In addition, “Bingo Dauber Fetish” pokes fun at and questions high-stakes bingo games on Indigenous territory. The piece is a huge, ceramic version of a dauber, a thick pen used to mark bingo scorecards. An image of an Indigenous man shouting “Bingo” enhances the sense of absurdity.
One segment of the exhibition portrays figures integral to Haudenosaunee community life. They include a Wolf Clan singer with distinctive face paint and a headdress; a medicine woman who holds a fringed bag; “Winter’s Stories,” featuring a storyteller, an elder. She has wrinkled hands and wears shell earrings and a shell choker.
They appear as part of a larger discussion of cultural continuity, of Haudenosaunee people adapting and surviving after 300 years of warfare, land seizures by public and private entities, and efforts to force assimilation.
And several pieces reference the structure of Haudenosaunee society. Indeed, one work depicts a bear, the emblem of one of nine clans for the Onondaga Nation. Jones himself is a citizen of the Onondaga Nation, the Beaver Clan.
Elsewhere, Jones touches on fraught relations between the Haudenosaunee and U.S. governments. In , “Dialogue on Sovereignty,” two figures stand back to back; one is Uncle Sam, and the other an Indigenous man. They are wrapped up by three layers, representations of the Two Row Wampum Belt, the U.S. flag, and the George Washington Belt.
The latter object, a six-foot long wampum belt, symbolizes the 1794 treaty of Canandaigua in which the United States and Haudenosaunee governments agreed to resolve disputes peacefully, on a government-to-government basis.
There are other artworks which both delve into complex issues and have visual appeal. One of them introduces the fictional character of Louise Skywoman, a cocktail waitress in a casino. She carries a tray with drinks on it and stands atop a bright-green turtle shell with newspaper headlines inscribed on it.
Here Jones is referring to the Haudenosaunee creation narrative in which Skywoman falls from the sky, lands on a sea turtle and begins gathering earth to make the world. The work seems to juxtapose traditional beliefs and the economic allure of a casino.
Another artwork, a traditional pot, touches on the events of Sept. 11, 2001. The vessel has an exterior with a smoked texture; tiny planes, and tiny figures, decorate its lip.
The piece revisits the role played by Haudenosaunee ironworkers in the months after Sept. 11. They helped to clear away debris so that removal and demolition work could begin. Sadly, they, like other construction workers on site, were breathing in asbestos dust, resulting in severe health risks.
“Covid Man,” made during 2020, portrays a figure who has curved horns and a beaked mask reminiscent of masks worn by so-called plague doctors in 17th century Europe. In his left hand, the man holds a small ball with the imprint of Covid-19 on its surface.
Jones also created a small but powerful sculpture in which an Indigenous woman holds a bloodied moccasin and has a bloody handprint on her face. The bloody hand is emblematic of a campaign by several organizations to resolve a crisis ongoing in the United States and Canada: the number of cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous women that are never resolved.
The crisis has several dimensions, one being the staggering number of murders. A study by the Urban Indian Health Institute concluded that murder is the third leading cause of death for Indigenous women. In addition, because of jurisdictional issues and other factors, dozens of murders weren’t fully investigated.
Jones has created a body of work dealing with the crisis. An exhibition of those works, entitled “O-bit-u-ary,” will premiere on September 29 at the Lynn Rodeman Metzger Galleries, the University of Akron.
At the SU Art Museum, the exhibit also explores Jones’s role in reviving methods used to make ancient Haudenosaunee pottery. The artist says he researched the process for 25 years before determining that the pottery was made by a pit-fired technique. He has incorporated the technique into his own work
Finally, the exhibition pays tribute to an artist with an impressive track record who’s still in the game, who still creates incisive, visually striking artworks. This fall, he has a major exhibit underway at Syracuse University and a second show forthcoming at the University of Akron.
“Continuity, Innovation and Resistance” is on display through December 15 in the Shaffer Art Building on the SU Quad. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and from noon to 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
There are several events scheduled in conjunction with the exhibit. A reception will be held on September 14 from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. And Jones will deliver an artist’s talk on September 15 from 12:30 to 1:15 p.m.
The museum is open to the public, and admission is free. For more information, call 315-443-4097.
Carl Mellor covered visual arts for the Syracuse New Times from 1994 through 2019. He continues to write about exhibitions and artists in the Syracuse area.