Donald Munro

Artist turns Standing Rock pipeline protests into Fresno State exhibition

Merritt Johnson’s “Open Container” is part of her “Creation Story” exhibition at Fresno State.
Merritt Johnson’s “Open Container” is part of her “Creation Story” exhibition at Fresno State. Special to The Bee

Artist Merritt Johnson was booked by Fresno State for an exhibition long before the Dakota Access Pipeline protests and the Standing Rock Indian Reservation became national buzzwords in the fall.

The university’s Center for Creativity and the Arts, which is sponsoring the exhibition along with the art and design department, benefited from fortuitous timing. Johnson, who participated with other artists in protesting against the pipeline, was able to add a decidedly current-events edge to her scheduled show just weeks later.

The result is the premiere of “This Is a Creation Story: Merritt Johnson and the Unnamed Collective,” a multimedia exhibition combining video installation, sculpture and performance. It opens Tuesday at the Phebe Conley Art Gallery.

“The exhibition was originally intended to highlight ideas on connection to community, as well as cultural diversity, appropriation, hybridity and stories of native peoples,” says Cindy Urrutia, director of the Center for Creativity and the Arts. “However, due to the events that occurred at Standing Rock, it is now a focal point of the exhibition.”

Johnson is a multidisciplinary artist of mixed Mohawk, Blackfoot, Irish and Swedish heritage. She has a history of working collaboratively with other leading Native American artists to promote a sense of community, while exposing issues that are important for native peoples and to her personally, Urrutia says.

The exhibition includes five video screens showing footage of Johnson and her fellow artists protesting the pipeline. One of those artists was Cannupa Hanska Luger, who coincidentally is scheduled to come to Fresno State in March to create an outdoor sculpture. Once Johnson and Luger found out they were both Fresno-bound, they wanted their works to be in dialogue with one another. Other collaborating artists were Nicholas Galanin, Dylan McLaughlin and Ginger Dunnill.

The exhibition’s sculptures include “Prayer Mask, Contemporary,” a basket mask woven around a respirator and optical calcite crystals for protected vision and breathing.

“The work was made to honor and acknowledge the water protectors of Oceti Sakowin Camp and the people on the front line at Standing Rock North Dakota protecting water from the Dakota Access Pipeline,” Urrutia says.

Containers also are a theme in the show both in a literal and metaphorical sense, with Johnson proposing that humans themselves are “containers” that transmit knowledge and create community.

There also will be a live component to the exhibition when Johnson gives an artist lecture from 3:30 to 5 p.m. on Jan. 24.

Urrutia is pleased that the original overarching theme of connection to community in Johnson’s work before the pipeline protests persists even as the exhibition became more specific.

“Standing Rock connected multiple communities and created a larger community of water protectors, environmentalist and native cultural heritage protectors,” she says.

This Is a Creation Story: Merritt Johnson and the Unnamed Collective

Art preview

  • Opens Tuesday. Runs 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays through Fridays through Jan. 27.
  • Phebe Conley Art Gallery, Fresno State
  • Free