Jolene Rickard

BirthplaceNiagara Falls, New York, Tuscarora nation, Turtle clan
Cultural HeritageNative North American
Light Work RelationshipArtist-in-Residence, 1992
Robert B. Menschel Gallery, 1994




Photographer Jolene Rickard, turtle clan member from the Tuscarora Nation territories, identifies land as a site for indigenous survival- as the source for human survival. She knows that land, like the word and the image, forms our perceptions of reality. Wrapped in the language of culture, land forms the skin of human consciousness acting as a basis for both spiritual and political expression. 

Human domination of the earth is evident when one recognizes land only as a commodity to be owned, occupied, preserved, or harvested. The struggle over land emerges as both ideological and political battle and for indigenous people the conflict is framed in a post-colonial or neo colonial debate. The relationship of the colonizer to the colonized continues to be defined only in terms of human oppression. Rarely do we hear reference to the colonized forest or the colonized river. Rickard’s photographs and installation extend the power inequity to address not only human beings but all living things.  She forces the viewer to move beyond the Bosnian crisis, U.S. intervention in Somalia, L.A. gangs, and the Crown Heights Jewish and Black neighborhood territorialism and asks about the spiritual or conscious link to the land. It is this connection to land in its natural order that defines the terms of our survival as human beings, not ghetto, national, or international borders. This natural order, from Rickard’s world view, began when Sky woman fell to the back of a giant turtle and brought life to this world. Cracked Shell refers not only to where life began, but also reveals the condition of the earth and indigenous people today. 

Looking in our own backyard, consider a New York Times Magazine story written a few years ago about deer in New York city Suburbs. This story reveals contemporary attitudes toward all living things. The community was up in arms because the deer were destroying flowers and trees. Elaborate methods were employed to move them outside the residential area. Instead of co-existing, or contemplating the potential for this kind of interaction before the land was developed, the human population in this region used ecosystem cleansing by moving the undesired population to designated reserves. Rickard would argue that the desire to “cleanse.” claim sole ownership, and exert the right to segregate the environment parallels the history of race relations between Eurocentric and Native cultures. Specific sites or spaces are designated for diverse inhabitants and are celebrated within the designated space. Like the desire to consume wildlife only on reserves, most regions' multicultural liberalism is based on a “consume when wanted” based not on the region's adaptation to live in a diverse ecoculture. This is the condition that creates Cracked Shell and demands Rickard’s ideas.

Rickard’s Iraquoian beliefs identify the interconnected network of all living things. The philosophy of equity between all creatures reflects, historically, a call for peace. The peace is symbolized by the white pine whose roots grew in all four directions. The implication of this symbol is that indigenous people of this part of the world are continuously responsible for seeking peace in all directions. Rickard’s cultural obligation is to seek this - the highest form of consciousness. Her struggle suggests, and creates wats for people to see, all four directions. 

Cracked Shell is Rickard’s photographic tape along the tattered seams of the turtle’s back of the earth. This tape holds in place the complex reality of indigenous people in the late 20th century. The photographs are a new alliance for a more balanced consciousness. Her photography is the first step toward breaking the manacle of colonization by rejecting the idea of human domination. Rickard’s work asks about dependence, about independence. For, “there is no one who is automatically the ally / ...Alliances don’t grow wild and unattended / ...they grow on two conditions / that you and I / both of us / understand that we need each other to survive / and that we have the courage / to ask each other what that means.”1

The Cracked shell, the “framing’ of culture, and the marking of the earth’s boundaries are intellectual conditions that Rickard critiques as she “explodes the boundaries and the content of the image.” She uses three-dimensional structures, traditional forms from her culture’s art, multiple exposures and juxtapositions, installation, and personal interactions with the lans in site-specific works. Each method suggests a layering of perception and ideas.Each work segues her personal vision, the Native vision, and the dominant vision. She critiques not only the cultural assumptions of race, spirituality, and land but also the art communities’ assumptions about the purpose and form of the photographic image. For this exhibition, Rickard designed a hoop, ten feet in diameter, that hangs from the gallery ceiling. From this hoop hang eight groupings of double sided images pulled to the floor with jute and stones. In the center of the hoop is braided corn. The eight images in the inner circle record the ritual of braiding the corn and preparing it for winter storage. The outer circle consists of many fragments of culture, torn and glued, floating in a turbulent river current. While this current presses up against the corn ritual, one can walk in and out of the circle affecting one’s sight of the elements and the philosophies. Central to this installation is the idea that from the outside the viewer sees both the outer current and glimpses of the corn, but from the inside one only sees the Iraquoian way. 

Rickard’s piece One Square Foot of Earth: One Square Foot of Real Estate - You Decide also addresses issues both in form and content. Photographs of cracked earth, a fallen tree, and migratory birds have been adhered to a cuve which is situated atop a crafted rebar stand and circular  metal base. The earth has been marked, cut into a geometric shape that is identified with real estate - the owning, buying, and selling of land. Her images reference depletion, flight, and decay. The cube form is raised, separated from the floor, by a material used in the construction of buildings and bridges thus each form references the break up and the separation of environmental elements. One Square Foot of Land of Earth… demonstrates the results of euro-colonization building a notion of land according to its economic and cultural beliefs; beliefs, that, in their specificity oppress other cultures. Rickard’s observation asks “what does this oppression mean” and in doing so the viewer is confronted with notions of land so entrenched in the culture that its meaning is rarely questioned. Inherent too, in this piece, is the sense of power and formal aesthetics associated with the cube form. The three dimensionality of the piece delineates a one dimensional understanding of the environment. Beneath this construction, pressed flat to the floor, is a circular base referencing Tuscaroras mark on land. The circle, a symbol of the connection of all elements of the environment, is oppressed by the structure on top.

Rickard also critiques eurocentric notions of land use in What They Do: What We Do but juxtaposes the “dominant” with her culture’s priorities. A corn plant is presented in a diptych with power lines. The Niagara Mohawk power plant’s red animal like hydro-turbines are presented with children and animal cut outs at a teach-in. The juxtapositions show each cultures sacred investments and forms but reveal vastly different priorities. For the Tuscaroras, corn is as powerful and central as electricity. Corn guaranteed her culture’s survival. Corn is sacred - the conductor of spiritual communication, opportunity, and security. These are terms that could be used to advertise the virtues of electricity. Placed in the context of the Niagara Mohawk power plant, the value of corn is understood through its equation. Rickard’s format acknowledges that a majority of her audience understands her cultural beliefs in the land and its power only when they understand their own. What They Do: What We Do uses a different approach than pieces like The Circles of Colonization: Greed, Jealousy, Isolation, 3 Sisters and Giving Thanks. These works draw lines between the  spiritual, plant and animal aspects of the land, or the sisterhood between women and sacred plants. They convey Rickard’s notion of culture which includes plants, land, spirits, animals and humans in balanced relation to each other. These images are perhaps most readable to those within her culture and in turn function like traditional beadwork or oral histories. Rickard is sensitive about who her viewer is because she sees her work as a way of teaching both western and indigenous cultures, but also as a way of passing down traditions within the Tuscarora community itself. The images are stories and “the stories are there to help guide you and help you know what the connection to the land is.”2

In her most recent work Rickard documents her personal intuitive and spiritual interaction with land. Her touch is marked as nurturing and redemptive, as well as magical. She gives her viewers an “internal” or personal vision of land use. In the series Space That We Penetrate, and specifically pieces like Struck by Lightning, Apple Father, and Blue Squash. Rickard touches the scape in a way that suggests what she might do when walking alone or working together in her community. She ties the limbs of a tree back onto its trunk after it has been hit by lightning, and she creates sculptural/ altar-like constructions in the forest and around her home. Each act honors and celebrates that which has been discarded, broken or left to make its way back into the circle of decay and growth. As a kind of site-specific environmental art, these photographs document an unformalized act of artistic expression centering on her cultural/personal daily interaction with the land. 

Rickard fills in and sees the shattered edges of perception within cultural definitions or boundaries of land, spirituality, ideology, and photography. Her thoughts on the complexities of these subjects become “objects to carry through time.”3 In the 1980s series Scientifically Unnatural, Rickard photographs the Tuscarora community. Her documentary style observations are layered with transfer arrows, lines, triangles, and circles. These markings are rooted in the tradition of anthropology - or “the scientific study of people.” Rickard applies these markings to photographs of traditional beadwork, feathers, constellations, to healing roots and old automobiles. Her imagery in this series, like in One Square Foot of Earth…, exposes the specificity of the eurocentric definitions of culture and earth. The scientific markings control and own notions of land in the same way that they control and own notions of “Indian.” These photographs intentionally question the desire to “capture the essence” and “mark the boundaries” of Nativeness and the earth both in cultural studies and through the use of photography. Trihn T. Minh ha summarizes this with the idea that “truth is not attained through logocentric certainties.”4 Through disclosing the limitations of these certainties, Rickard has created a space where different ways of perceiving and interacting with land and culture can emerge. Her work inspires revision and alternative readings of our relationships with the land and one another mending the cracks of competing definitions. 

Amy Hufnagel

Assistant Director, Light Work


  1. Judit, “Alliances,” Comaneras: Latina Lesbians, 1987.
  2. Jolene Rickard, “Mixing It Up II,” on radio station KGNU, Boulder, CO, April 7, 1989
  3. Jolene Rickard, Artist Statement from “I See Red in 92,” The Century Gallery, Cattaraugus County Campus, Jamesville Community College, 1992.
  4. Trihn T. Minh ha, When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender, and Cultural Politics, 1991.