Native American artist G. Peter Jemison, who lives and works near Rochester, New York, has been exploring Seneca traditions in many mediums since the 1960s. His work features in “The Land Carries Our Ancestors: Contemporary Art by Native Americans,” a landmark exhibition curated by fellow artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith that opens at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in September.
The special pull-out print that accompanies the Summer 2023 “Icons” issue of Art in America features o:nyõ’hsowa:nẽh gowa (Great Pumpkin), a painting that Jemison made around 1974. Below, the artist tells A.i.A. about the context in which it was conjured—and how the work wound up in parts unknown.
As told to A.i.A. In 1971 I got invited to be in an exhibition at what was then known as the Museum of the American Indian [before it changed to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian] in New York. It was the first time I showed with other Native artists. Around then, I was just beginning to search for more about my identity. I grew up in an all-Seneca community, but there wasn’t a lot of what I would call “cultural immersion” then.
I’d just started a job as a counselor for children who had attention-deficit disorder. The kids would get a timeout period during the day, and I started spending a lot more time outdoors with them. I started to really look at the natural world for patterns and ideas for my work as I was contextualizing it within our cultural traditions.
I was looking at trees and how they had influenced our way of life. Before the first trade occurred, everything we used had to be made. We manufactured our own cooking pots, our own tools, our own utensils. I was learning about all of that, but more in the form of reading than through active participation.
The next step was to spend time meeting people in my community who I had known but hadn’t seen in quite some time. I also began to exhibit with other Native artists on a regular basis. Actually, there was an article in Art in America in 1972 by Lloyd Oxendine, who wrote about 23 contemporary Native artists. The Today Show interviewed him about the article, and we did an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum [“Native North American Art: Contemporary Works by American Indian Artists”] that year too. That all pushed me to really look at the kind of iconography that I wanted in my artwork and that spoke to my identity.
My painting o:nyõ’hsowa:nẽh gowa (Great Pumpkin) falls right at the nexus of me revisiting questions like: Who am I? What are the traditions that I come from? What does it mean to be a contemporary Seneca? What are our issues and concerns? In the Seneca language we have this phrase Jõhe’hgõh, which means “the foods that sustain us.” There are three primary foods that we raised to be the source of our sustenance: corn, beans, and squash. The pumpkin is a squash, and it’s one of those vegetables that can be stored and then used during long winter months.
The background of the painting represents tree bark, but it’s painted in an abstract manner with colors that would not be present in an actual tree. I wanted to create the illusion of a three-dimensional object on a flat surface. Rendering what in reality is heavily textured as flat makes for a kind of breakdown of the picture plane.
This work was stolen after an exhibition at the American Indian Community House Gallery in New York City in 1983. There was a break-in, and they stole o:nyõ’hsowa:nẽh gowa (Great Pumpkin) and another painting of mine, both of which I never recovered. A friend of mine actually found the paintings after they were stolen; there was a guy trying to sell them down on Canal Street. They wound up getting confiscated by the New York City police, and I went to the station house in Tribeca and identified the paintings as mine. It was like a scene out of Barney Miller: I’m standing in the middle of the police station, and every cop that comes in says, “Who’s the ahhhtist? Are you the ahhhtist?” The next guy comes in and asks the same question.
So I’m thinking, I’m going to get these back! But the police took them to where they took stolen material. I can’t recall if it was Long Island City or Rikers Island, but, in any case, I went and tried to go through the process to recover them. When I got there and asked, a guy looked at me and said, “Do you see this warehouse? Do you think you could find them here?” I walked away shaking my head.