In Tulsa, Artists Mine Local History Through an Afro-Indigenous Lens

TULSA, Okla. — I was surprised to see rivers when I looked out the plane window as we descended into Tulsa, a place I imagined as dusty and dry based on my recollections of Dust Bowl history. But outside, the land was green, and the sky bright and sunny — a far cry from the heavy rain that had canceled my initial flight from LaGuardia. As the plane wheels met the tarmac, I noticed that the city and surrounding landscape were sheathed in low-hanging smoke coming from somewhere beyond the horizon. A quick Google search revealed that the Northwest portion of the state was engulfed in flames from wildfires.

I was in the city for Sovereign Futures, an arts and culture symposium that aimed to tell a more accurate history of Tulsa through the lens of Afro-Indigenous sovereignty. New York-based curator Allison Glenn organized the four-day program held from April 4 through 7 with a team of advisors consisting of Houston-based artist Rick Lowe and Oklahoma-born creatives Kalyn Fay Barnoski, Caleb Gayle, and Yatika Starr Fields, who hope to turn the event into a triennial. Its funders include charities and institutions such as Bloomberg Philanthropies, the University of Tulsa, and the George Kaiser Family Foundation. 

For its first edition, the itinerary was packed with cultural exhibitions and projects interspersed with educational activities tracing the region’s continuing evolution from an unassigned territory to the present-day state of Oklahoma. The programming aimed to “repudiate” inaccurate “sepia-toned” portrayals in historical narratives of Oklahoma that primarily platform White, cisgender landowning men, Gayle explained to Hyperallergic.

“It’s this myth that exists that anyone here can be bulldozed and we can start again,” he said.

This myth has long permeated Oklahoma history and the broader West at large. Built, destroyed, and rebuilt again, Tulsa and the surrounding region are layered in interwoven histories, accumulated over time by the various communities residing in its flat, oil-rich land. Situated at the cross-section of reservations belonging to the Osage, Mvskoke, and Cherokee Nations, the city was built in the years after Emancipation, when federal mandates opened up the region (government-designated “Indian Country”) to Western-bound White settlers, further stripping displaced tribal nations of sovereignty with the arrival of the St. Louis and San Francisco railways. In November 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt established Oklahoma as the nation’s 46th state.

During the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War, Tulsa and the surrounding area were also a convening site for formerly enslaved African-American communities. Greenwood, a 35-square-block district where the city’s entire Black population resided due to Jim Crow segregation, became known as “Black Wall Street” on account of its thriving business sector and affluent residents. The neighborhood was razed in the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, a two-day assault in which Ku Klux Klan-led White mobs killed an estimated 300 Black residents while destroying over 1,200 homes and dozens of the neighborhood’s Black-owned businesses, churches, and community centers. Seven of Oklahoma’s all-Black towns still in existence today are located near Tulsa, originally founded by formerly enslaved African-American communities seeking refuge from the Southern United States and Black Indigenous groups who were previously enslaved by the Mvskoke, Seminole, Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw tribal nations.

There were multiple ways in which Sovereign Futures tried to dispel Oklahoma’s White-washed history, from art exhibitions prioritizing the cultural visibility and creative agency of Black and Indigenous artists to educational events led by local residents, many of whose regional roots stretch back generations.

However, the most successful elements of the symposium that resonated the most with me accomplished both, bridging the gap between Tulsa’s many disjointed histories and community members.

The first night’s screening of Carnelian (2023), an hour-long science fiction musical by Philadelphia-based filmmaker Lex Brown, turned out to be both the film’s theatrical debut as well as a type of homecoming for the artist herself. On both sides of her family, Brown is a descendant of the survivors of the 1921 Massacre.

“The notion of returning to a place where you have an ancestral tie was really powerful,” Brown later said. “There were just different waves of personal history, locational history, family history, and artistic history that were all rolling and intermingling with each other.”

The group exhibition We Have Arrived exploring “Afro-Indigenous histories of Tvlse/Tulsa and beyond” primarily featured artists originally from the greater Tulsa region. The show, which ran from April 5 until April 7, was displayed in a warehouse-turned-gallery across the street from a public mural that co-curator Starr Fields (Cherokee, Mvskoke, and Osage) explained became an important space for local Native community members to gather during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Ashanti Chaplin concluded our visit to the exhibition with a performance of “Dust to Dirge/ An Earth Elegy” (2023–ongoing), in which the Tulsa-born artist repeatedly encircles an obelisk made from soil collected from the state’s 13 all-Black towns while holding two pieces of velvety fabric. The work evokes ancestral relationships with the natural world, also addressed in her current exhibition The Hidden Gospels of Dust at the Tulsa Artist Fellowship’s Flagship gallery.

In addition to platforming local Indigenous, Black and multiracial artists, We Have Arrived also included artists outside of Oklahoma whose experiences parallel those of the region’s manifold communities. To this end, the show took its name from “ya llegamos” (2011), a glazed oil painting by Puerto Rican artist José Luis Vargas depicting a supernatural creature looming over a Black person rising from a pool of liquid.

“When I think of the US and the displacement of Indigenous people, I also think about the islands and surrounding so-called US territories,” Starr Fields said, adding that Puerto Rico’s history has a “similar political terrain.”

This expansion beyond Tulsa was also explored in an hour-long “Chant Down” performance, a medley of traditional Afro-Indigenous songs from the Caribbean like bomba and bullerengue. Led by New York-based artists Luis Rincón Alba and Camila Falquez, the moving work was held in a black-box theater and featured five vocalists arranged in a circle, singing in Spanish and Yoruba. Many audience members (including myself) could not always understand the lyrics, but the artists later explained that the words were not the point.

“It’s important for us to tell people that it doesn’t matter if they don’t understand,” singer and musician Carolina Oliveros said, emphasizing that the crux of the piece is its communal energy.

The program’s underlying theme of community felt less cohesive at artist Kalup Linzy’s Queen Rose Art House, where we gathered for breakfast on the third day of the symposium. The building is covered in art, from a custom-designed parked truck to the mural-decorated fence bordering the backyard, where a separate exhibition space displayed video works by Sondra Perry, Jacolby Satterwhite, and Ulysses S. Jenkins. The space, founded in 2021, hosts short-term residencies, performances, and other events.

But the house stands out in the residential Kendall-Whittier neighborhood in which it’s located. Linzy said neighbors have responded to it with mixed reactions, ranging from acceptance and confusion (many neighbors mistook the multicolored residence for a daycare center) to, in one instance, harassment. Two longtime neighborhood residents living across the street told me they weren’t aware of the art house and its programming. Perhaps this will change now that the house is open to the public every Saturday, though its connection to the local community remains unclear.

Elsewhere, the most compelling elements in the symposium often occurred during the organic connections between attendees and Oklahoma community members. During a day trip to the all-Black town of Boley, local residents proudly led us around their hometown and excitedly discussed their upcoming rodeo, the oldest African-American community-based rodeo. Another visit to the Osage Nation’s Harvest Land working farm included a panel discussion on food sovereignty and a lunch of salad, white beans, grains, cornbread, and buffalo held in traditional Osage fashion: We sat together, passing bowls and plates down long community tables. 

Tulsa resident L. Joi McCondichie was not officially part of the symposium, but her vivacious personality and local knowledge spanning generations of local history quickly became a key element to the program and its mission. Starr Fields organized a walk along part of a 16-mile route called the Osage Prairie Trail, but asked McCondichie to lead our group instead. The path follows the same route her grandmother took at nine years old when she fled the 1921 Massacre, eventually seeking shelter inside a chicken coop.

Pointing to the highways and the sprawling Oklahoma State University (OSU) campus that traverse the land where the neighborhood once stood, McCondichie also explained that after the Massacre, 5,000 survivors who had been forced into internment camps rebuilt Greenwood in defiance of racist zoning codes and lack of support from insurance companies. But nearly 50 years later, so-called urban renewal projects brought the construction of crosstown expressways, paving over the neighborhood and effectively destroying Greenwood a second time.

On the symposium’s final day, the morning began with a panel on public art with representatives from organizations including Chicago’s Center for Native Futures and New York’s Creative Time.

But the most crucial example of the discussion’s focus on “deep listening” came after the event itself, when approximately a dozen audience members followed McCondichie to a community-built memorial she wanted to show the group. Located on what is now OSU’s campus, the Ellis Walker Woods Memorial marks the former site of Greenwood’s Booker T. Washington High School and narrates the history of the neighborhood.

“All through here is my family history, and this is what we never get to see,” McCondichie said, motioning to the names of community members listed on the memorial.

“I’m so proud because we built this with our hands,” McCondichie added. “This is that public art that they’re talking about. This is the work that needs to be done.”

Miss Joi and Casey Black
McCondichie (left) stands with local artist Casey Flack (right) in front of one of the memorial inscriptions.

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