Listen, Touch and Learn: Marie Watt at the Blanton

Think back to your first museum visit. For many of us, it was probably as a child during a school field trip or on a summer afternoon with a parent, and we probably received stern instructions to keep our voices down and to not touch anything while inside the gallery. That’s part of the reason Blanton Museum of Art’s Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Hannah Klemm smiles when she sees visitors enter their new exhibition, Marie Watt: SKY DANCES LIGHT, on display through Oct. 20, 2024. “It’s always fun to watch, because everyone has that moment when they read the sign and the wall text that says you’re invited to touch these and they’re always a little cautious,” Klemm says.

The art in this exhibition isn’t meant to only be touched; it’s also meant to be heard. Tens of thousands of small, cone-shaped tin bells, or “jingles,” have been used to create approximately 15 cloud sculptures of various sizes, suspended from the ceiling at various heights. Klemm likens it to a forest canopy, where visitors can literally step into the rustling bells and let them cascade over them. (One sculpture is even installed onto a disco ball motor.)  It makes for a playful, ethereal experience, though these Native American jingles originate  from a less lighthearted situation. The stories vary slightly, but the premise is basically the same: During the 1918 flu pandemic, a child in the Ojibwe tribe became ill. Her grandfather had a dream that if the women of the tribe attached tin bells to their dresses and danced around the child, she would be healed by the sound. “And so, after having this dream, the elder spoke to the women and they sewed these jingles made out of rolled tobacco lids onto a dress and rhythmically danced around the child during a drum circle,” Klemm explains. “The story goes that the child was cured… it became a really important ceremonial dance.”

Roughly a century later, the world found itself in another pandemic and artist Marie Watt, an enrolled member of the Seneca Nation, drew from the origins of the jingle dress dance as a healing ritual and connected it to the current moment of recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Klemm notes that much of Watt’s work centers on experience and community, which is one of the reasons she has wanted to do a show with the artist since first meeting her in 2018. For this exhibition, the Blanton is not only displaying Watt’s recent works, but has also invited her to make new ones for the space.

Included in the exhibition is a video featuring Acosia Red Elk, a 10-time world champion jingle dress dancer. Klemm says it adds a layer of understanding to see the actual jingle dance ritual to give visitors a better idea of the importance of the regalia as part of Native American powwow ceremonies across the country.  SKY DANCES LIGHT is the twelfth version of the Blanton’s Contemporary Projects series, which usually features works by living artists. This particular exhibition is a step toward expanding their contemporary Native American art collection and part of a larger effort of championing the underrepresented areas of art as a whole. “I do hope they get to learn more about some of these elements of Native American culture that are so important and embedded in all of our histories here in the United States,” Klemm says. “Maybe it’ll also make them think about contemporary art and sculpture differently.”