Anna Tsouhlarakis’s artwork evokes a lesser-known definition of the term “native Washingtonian.” In her first D.C. show, she explores the duality of the Native American experience in Washington — balancing their important work maintaining a presence in the nation’s capital while honoring the traditions and customs of their tribes.
Many Native Americans in Washington lobby legislators on Capitol Hill or are part of the professional communities that have formed around the National Museum of the American Indian and the Indian Health Services agency in Rockville. Tsouhlarakis, a member of the Navajo Nation, surveyed Native Americans about living in Washington. She wove together their answers and created a text-based installation on display at Flashpoint that provides a cross section of local Native American hearts and minds.
In confrontationally bold text evocative of conceptual artist Jenny Holzer’s “Truisms,” the responses fill the gallery from floor to ceiling. Thirty-three of her survey respondents — members of the Lakota, Pueblo and Iroquois tribes, among others — are represented by bundles of sticks that Tsouhlarakis collected in Rock Creek Park and interspersed throughout the wall text. The sticks are patterned with stripes of black electrical tape that echoes the text lettering. The quotes form a loose chronology — from a Native American’s first impression of the city to homesickness and, finally, to acceptance of one’s situation and mission.
Tsouhlarakis argues that Native Americans living in Washington face more challenges than those who settle elsewhere. It’s one thing to leave home to work for your cause; it’s another thing entirely to move to a place where the football team’s name is considered by many to be a racial slur against native people.
“See people of color in Redskins gear or hipsters in war paint” is one of the quotations on the wall, a reminder that the team’s name, which Redskins General Manager Bruce Allen has said is “nothing that we feel is offensive,” is in fact deeply hurtful to some. And things that seem ordinary to many Washingtonians bear a second look, as a quote from one respondent reveals: “Never drive or go by Columbus Circle in protest of the truth.”
The show could use more quotes like these, challenging non-Native Americans to examine their assumptions. Tsouhlarakis is dependent on her survey responses, of course, but they’re interspersed with a bit too much filler about the generic Washington experience, such as our “ephemeral interns” and “hard work.” Had Tsouhlarakis edited the text down to the punchiest, most assertive responses, the show would have been more powerful. Instead, the political responses are too diluted.
Homesickness is one theme expressed in the show that unifies Native American and other residents. As is the city’s transient nature. “Even if you don’t leave everyone else does” is a phrase echoed by anyone who has lived here long enough to see friends decamp for New York or go abroad. “Too much grandstanding fakeness and cheesiness” is perhaps another familiar sentiment.
But Tsouhlarakis isn’t talking about non-natives, so their chance to relate may be fleeting. The Native American community here is special, and she jolts you right back into it with one pithy description of Washington: “Just a different Rez.”
Thirty-three Native Americans are represented in Anna Tsouhlarakis’s show, but she’s not one of them. The artist, who is from New Mexico but has lived in Washington for four years, says including her own feelings was unnecessary.
“I felt like I didn’t need to, because so much of what I was seeing [in the responses] was how I felt about things,” she says. “A lot of natives here seem to kind of have that feeling of understanding that it’s important to be here, and enjoying that experience, but also knowing that there’s something that they’ve left at home.”
Tsouhlarakis says her installation was based on a desire to work with members of the community on a project that didn’t pertain to their work in politics or museums. And although many of the Native Americans she surveyed have come away with positive views of Washington, the exhibit leaves the impression that all of us could be a little more sensitive. One of the quotes that hit home for Tsouhlarakis: “You don’t look like a real Indian.”
“I think a lot of people assume that being Native American is the same as being any other race, that it’s kind of a physical-based thing,” the artist says. “For us, it’s not like that at all, because it’s politically based and it has to do with your membership in a tribe and your being part of a community.”
The artist says the Native Americans she engaged with ended up “looking at the experience [of living in Washington] in a more confident, proud way.” And so did Tsouhlarakis — but with a twinge of sadness.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been as homesick as I was when I was sitting there reading all the responses for the first time.”
— Maura Judkis