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ASU professor explores questions of the sacred and the discarded

Native artist sees link between destroying holy objects and harming the environment

August 06, 2021

What is sacred? If something is sacred, can it be sold?

These are the questions that Jacob Meders is asking in his exhibit titled “And It’s Built on the Sacred” at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.

Meders earned a Master of Fine Arts in printmaking from the School of Art at Arizona State University and is an assistant professor in the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at ASU’s West campus. He’s a member of the Mechoopda Indian Tribe of Chico Rancheria, California.

He works in several media, primarily printmaking through his own fine-art printmaking press, WarBird Press. He also does weaving and painting.

“And It’s Built on the Sacred,” in its own gallery at the museum, features four tall podiums with Christian religious figures inside glass domes. Meders found the objects in thrift stores and left the discount tags on them. These are surrounded by four painted blankets and set on a circle of dirt.

Meders answered questions from ASU News about his exhibit and his teaching at the West campus:

Question: What questions do you want viewers to consider with this piece?

Answer: There are a lot of questions layered within this work. Work tends to be more powerful with questions and not just answers.

These objects are discarded and unwanted, and they’re also objects that were part of capitalism and commodified and sold and discarded.

These things represent colonial religious beliefs.

When you start thinking about what is sacred to non-Indigenous people through their practice system and how they address it, and then think about the Indigenous perspective on that, you have two ways of processing that are very different.

I’m asking the viewers to think about this.

I reclaimed these discarded items and Indigenized them. I painted them and created a new space for them to exist, and in some way they become sacred again but from an Indigenous perspective.

If you think about how we address the sacred things of Native people, it’s, “We’ll put a pipeline there, we’ll put a highway there, we’ll dig a big hole and create a mine. We’ll destroy the water.”

You think that has to be easy for people who would commodify their religion and discard it. If this is what they do with their own practice and belief system, then this is why we’re getting these results.

Q: Is this a question you explore in a lot of your work?

A: Yes, I do. There’s this dialogue with Christianity and colonization and the idea of Manifest Destiny and even the title, “And It’s Built on the Sacred,” referencing churches and temples that were built on sacred places of Indigenous people.

If you think of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, it was in 1978 when Native people were allowed to practice their own ceremonies and ways of belief that were outlawed for a very long time. That was the year after I was born, so I’m not talking about something untouchable in the past.

I think about how a lot of Native people hid their ceremonies within Christianity. I also think about the boarding schools. A lot of those were run by the church, and to this day, the pope won’t apologize and acknowledge the abuse that happened. Children were raped and killed and beaten for speaking their languages or just for existing and being Indian.

There are these things I’m looking at and reading about and thinking when I’m making these things.

Q: Why did you set the exhibit up this way?

A: There are many layers and directions here.

The podiums are north, east, south, west. The female is facing east, which greets the rising of the sun because everything starts with the woman.

There are little subtleties that are there for you to explore, and hopefully you start to grow and learn and think about these things.

You don’t reveal everything. You need to let the viewer ask questions and find ways of navigating this work on their own and not hold their hand or say, “This is what it means to be Native.”

Q: What about the dirt on the floor?

A: The dirt floor represents a place of healing, and you start thinking about the environment. As Mechoopda people, we have round houses that are circular, and I’m referencing that, in a way, as a place of healing and allowing people to experience that.

Even the apprehensiveness of whether you should step on that dirt or not makes you make that choice. You see where people have stepped on it, but should you do it? In a way I’m almost baiting them into that because the best perspective to view the work is the center. You see the objects and how they come together.

It makes you think for a moment whether it’s appropriate or not, and that’s an important step to make the viewer go through and a process that needs to happen more often in our daily lives.

The dirt is from my front yard, and people giggle about that, but it’s also asking you — the land you’re thriving on, the land that you’re raising your family on, the land you claim is your own, is O’odham land. And these people have been here for thousands of years and have taken care of it, and are you taking care of it? Does it feel sacred to you? It starts with your own yard.

A lot of my work has this focus now; as I’ve gotten older, I’ve been making sure that there’s something within the work that allows the viewer to have space to heal. And for me as an artist too, because I have to go through this historical trauma when researching and building.

Q: Why did you paint the blankets?

A: I started because with my undergrad painting degree, I really questioned not only what I was painting about, but also what I was painting on. It had to be just as important to the concept.

The blanket came to me because we have blanket ceremonies, and blankets are important gifts in Indian Country. But blankets can connect beyond our Indigenous culture.

I thought about place and how the Spanish claimed the Mechoopda as their land and our identity is shifted by an outsider and their claim to land. And then it became Mexico and their claim to the land. And then it became America and their claim to the land. And I started thinking about the blanket as a reference to the border because we still have these issues of who defines the land.

I started doing these contemporary images of my culture, mostly around basket weaving or things done around ceremonies, with conceptual renderings that point to but aren’t specifically those things, like basket patterns.

It’s also about the process, in which I’m slowly building these layers that over time start to mask the older pattern, which starts to dissipate. It’s not just what you see but how it gets there as part of the concept.

Q: And there are weaving references in the dirt floor?

A: Weavers are healers because they understand the plants and the lands so much. To collect that material to weave is a yearlong process of nurturing and taking care of those plants.

By putting willow under the dirt, it talks about knowledge and caretakers of the land.

As time goes by, the willow starts to show itself through the dirt. It’s a work in progress as people interact with it.

Q: The entrance to the gallery has a land acknowledgment that you printed with hand-set type in your print shop, WarBird Press, and it’s also in a newspaper vending machine in the front lobby. You’ve often distributed your printed works in newspaper vending machines. Why do you do that?

A newspaper vending machine holds printed material with a land acknowledgement

A: That’s an ongoing social-engagement process I’ve had for years now. I put them in different places at different times. There was one at the ASU Art Museum recently, and there were three in Chico, which is the town built on our Mechoopda village.

As an artist, some of my audience are people who might not come into a museum and they aren’t people who go into an institution like a university. They don’t feel welcome at times.

Multiples of print is the perfect way to disseminate information, and it’s been that way through history.

I think about how I can use that colonial material, as Indigenous people have done throughout history, whether it’s the horse or the gun, to master and use in a different way.

It’s having a conversation with the public and have it be something they can take home and own a piece of art that’s handmade.

Q: Last fall, you taught the class “Print and the Protest” with faculty from the English department for the first time. What was that class about?

A: I made the students have a clear, defined understanding of protest and propaganda and made them understand that when they approach these protest subjects, they have to really do research and do the work to understand what they’re taking about because we’re in an age of disinformation.

You’re in college, you’re a scholar and you need to know what the facts are.

They then picked their own area of protest and saw historical examples of print protest, such as the work of Ester Hernandez and the farmworkers.

They learn how print has affected the history of protest.

Then they get to use this old vintage newspaper equipment, hand-setting lead and woodblock type and cutting their own paper down and running their own prints. We call it Press West.

It’s about the type and the words they use and how they craft it. That’s why the English department is so important. We talk about wordplay and how you get across the meaning you want with very few words.

We did a collaborative print at the end that was exhibited at the “ABBA’s Greatest Hits” show in the Harry Wood Gallery. And they won an honorable mention, which was really cool. 

A lot of students said the class was really what they needed. With all the stress going on in the world and in politics, it gave them outlet to have a voice.

Top image: Jacob Meders, an assistant professor in the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, with his installation, “And It’s Built on the Sacred," which will be on view through Oct. 17 at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, 7374 E. Second St., Scottsdale. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

The “Print and the Protest” course is scheduled to be offered in spring 2022.

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