At New Bedford Whaling Museum, a Wampanoag lens on land and sea

Noble Horvath

NEW BEDFORD — The first thing you need to know about Elizabeth James Perry is that her work is masterful, intricate, complex, beautiful. This is a way in, a doorway through which anyone can pass. But in the dizzying patterns of tiny white-and-lilac-shaded quahog beads that make up much of […]

NEW BEDFORD — The first thing you need to know about Elizabeth James Perry is that her work is masterful, intricate, complex, beautiful. This is a way in, a doorway through which anyone can pass. But in the dizzying patterns of tiny white-and-lilac-shaded quahog beads that make up much of her work, there is history, culture, tragedy — and defiance, too. There is beauty through ugliness, and because of it, hope.

Perry, a Wampanoag artist and registered member of the Aquinnah tribe on Martha’s Vineyard, is an emblem of the complex reality of Indigenous people’s persistence here over centuries and against staggering odds. A descendant of Kofi Slocum, a 17th-century freed slave, and Ruth Moses, who was Wampanoag from Aquinnah, Perry is an artist, activist, naturalist, and marine biologist. Each one feeds the other; for her, they are inseparable. Each tiny bead, set in necklaces and medallions and belts and sashes, is a declaration of will: To let none of these things wither, to imbue them with life.

Potomska, 2018, Elizabeth James-Perry
Potomska, 2018, Elizabeth James-PerryCourtesy Elizabeth James-Perry (CUSTOM_CREDIT)

A beguiling array is on view at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, which opened “Ripples: Through a Wampanoag Lens,” a show of Perry’s work, earlier this month. Small vitrines contain beadwork and carved quahog shell pieces portraying sea creatures important in Wampanoag cosmology — water panthers, whales, dolphins. Wampum — grids of beads arrayed in patterns that traditionally represented things like treaties or currency — runs through her work. One large piece is a tribute to Maushop, a giant in Wampanoag belief who caught and butchered whales for his people off the western shore of the Vineyard, giving the sandy cliffs of Aquinnah their dusty red hue.

“Maushop’s Locket,” a thick curve of quahog shell shaded deep purple against milky white, dangles from a slim braid of seagrass rope. It’s abstract and naturalistic, a thoroughly contemporary take on ancient practices that artists like Perry have brought back through the eye of a needle, handing them down one generation to the next as widespread assault reduced Native American culture, in the mainstream view, to gift-shop curios. It is no small thing that Perry’s work is here, in a museum, a colonial construct from the very beginning.

Metacomet’s Leadership Medallion, 2005, Elizabeth James Perry
Metacomet’s Leadership Medallion, 2005, Elizabeth James PerryCourtesy Elizabeth James Perry

One piece, a dazzling disc of deep-purple Wampum beads flecked here and there with white, is called “Metacomet’s Leadership Medallion.” It’s a tribute to the Wampanoag leader, known by colonialists as King Philip, who waged war in the late 17th century against English settlers claiming Wampanoag lands all over southern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One room away, the museum’s historical display on “King Philip’s War” suggests brutality on the part of the tribal leader; with Perry’s work, it’s dignified resistance, embodied in the beauty of cultural practice.

Shows like this help break down a divide, between ideas of a culture long since expired and one alive, even thriving. “Ripples” presents Wampanoag culture not as history or artifact, but with past linked to present in an unbroken chain.

That’s surely how Perry sees it, learning traditional beadwork and shell carving from elders throughout her childhood, honing her cultural practice with her hands, while setting her mind to the legal tangles and environmental challenges piled on Wampanoag people by centuries of colonialism. Martha’s Vineyard — known as Noepe to the Wampanoag — became a site of intense study for her years ago. It was a place she had known all her life, of course, her roots deep in the sea and soil. When she worked there as a marine biologist, rooting out invasive species and restoring habitat for native animals, she came to see cultural practices tied to the island and surrounding waters not just as a link to history but an expression of the present.

As a scientist, she learned years ago that acidifying oceans and the loss of dune and eel grass have indelibly altered the ecosystems there, and with it, the marine life that could thrive. Perry’s work as an artist, then, is a reflection of her culture’s ability to adapt to an environment that has always sustained it, and which it necessarily reflects. Alongside Perry’s works are large texts on the walls in her own words. She tells stories of her work, her history, and Wampanoag culture. She explains how it connects to the land, the sea, and what it provides.

Thick, heavy quahog shells have become less abundant, she explains, whether due to overharvesting, changes in ocean chemistry, or simply warming. So her artmaking has changed, too. Quahogs no longer grow large enough to make the massive wampum beads of her ancestors. All-white shelled species tend to grow where industrialization has contaminated the waters, their shells too brittle for much use at all. Perry’s work is of a people and a place in every way: Her beadwork has necessarily grown more delicate, as the shells themselves have grown smaller. At the same time, there’s something about them that feels monumental. As the country struggles in this unprecedented moment with a history of racial injustice never fully addressed or reconciled, Perry’s work joins a growing chorus saying something damningly loud and clear: We are here. We have always been here. What will it take for you to see us?

RIPPLES: THROUGH A WAMPANOAG LENS

At the New Bedford Whaling Museum, 18 Johnny Cake Hill. 508-997-0046, www.whalingmuseum.org


Murray Whyte can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte

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