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IMAGE HEADER: Jeremy Dennis. Photo by Lori Hawkins.
Drawing from personal, local and North American indigenous lives and histories, photographer Jeremy Dennis explores identity, culture and assimilation from his home-base on Long Island as part of the Shinnecock Indian Nation. Through documentary work, portraiture available in his book, Behind the Dance Indigenous Portraits, and constructed photographs that draw from myth, Dennis’ work centers North American indigeneity and its enduring presence on the continent. We reached out to Dennis to discuss his ongoing series, Stories, recently awarded a Creative Bursar Award from Getty Images – and his latest project, the restoration and evolution of his family home into a community art space on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation in Southampton, New York.
Whaling Mural by Denise Silva-Dennis on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation Community Center.
DUGGAL ART SCENE: To frame your practice, can you tell us a bit about the Shinnecock Nation’s presence on Long Island, both historically and in its present form?
JEREMY: The Shinnecock Nation is among at least 12 other indigenous groups who have lived on Long Island for at least 10,000 years. Traditionally, we were known for our wampum bead production and whaling culture, and still, continue to craft using the clamshell and wampum designs. Today, we at Shinnecock have a land base of 800 square acres and are currently working on economic development projects, our land claims to the Shinnecock Hills, and continue to work toward protecting our ancestral sacred sites throughout Long Island.
Jeremy Dennis, The Legend of O-Na-Wut-A-Qut.
DUGGAL ART SCENE: In your series, Stories—Indigenous Oral Stories, Dreams and Myths, you transform North American indigenous myths and legends into tangible objects – photographs. What is the process of preserving or translating these stories into visual form? How does that context differ from or compliment the written or spoken word?
JEREMY: For my series, Stories, I have collected many indigenous creation stories that originate all throughout North America in preparation. When reading these stories, I sort out those that I connect to - those that I feel have a strong connection to life and lessons we need today; or sometimes those that are so unique and incredibly inspiring that I feel an image needs to be made. I then create illustrations and propose sketches to other tribal members or non-indigenous volunteers to stand in as models to produce the images.
Portrait of Vernon Christjohn from the book Behind The Dance by Jeremy Dennis.
DUGGAL ART SCENE: In your work, you explore the idea of “contemporary agency” in the context of indigeneity. What does that mean from your vantage point? Are contemporary photography, the art world, and publishing – your book Behind the Dance Indigenous Portraits – amenable spaces in terms of the exploration of this agency?
JEREMY: I think now, in recent times, being able to celebrate our indigeneity is so important. Looking at America's history of trying to erase indigenous people through colonization and genocide, it’s incredible to reflect on how resilient we are as people. As I acknowledge these difficulties, I also think it is important to honor those who came before us and the sacrifices they made that allowed us to still be here today. In their time, they may not have had the time or ability to fully commit to the arts and expression and I believe we must use our agency now to fill that role. The series, Stories, looks to our origins and reinforces that connection to the past and present.
Portrait of Kelly Dennis from the book Behind The Dance by Jeremy Dennis.
DUGGAL ART SCENE: What was the genesis of your Ma’s House Restoration & Shinnecock BIPOC Artist Studio initiative? How is the project developing and how is it being received on Long Island in general?
JEREMY: Ma's House & BIPOC studio is a project that started due to COVID-19 and many exhibition and residency cancellations that happened. With the travel restrictions and social distancing, I turned to a very local project of restoring an old family home, which will hopefully one day be my home and studio as well. The house was originally my grandmother Loretta Silva's home, and she wanted it to always be a family home and we needed it and eventually to turn it into a museum. I really liked that idea as well, but also wanted to make it a communal art space, a contemporary art gallery, and an artist residency. Since June, we have been fundraising on GoFundMe and have accomplished much in terms of the restoration!
For more info on Jeremy Dennis visit: www.jeremynative.com
For more info on the Ma’s House Restoration & Shinnecock BIPOC Artist Studio initiative visit: www.gofundme.com/f/mas-house-studio