Native American Students’ Association (NASA) welcomed artist, activist and model Geo Soctomah Neptune to campus in conjunction with the opening of the Wabanaki basket-making exhibit at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art (BCMA).
Shandiin Largo ’23, a NASA leader and student curator, sees the exhibit as a display of Native American voices on campus, with special consideration to the historical relationship between Native people and museums.
“This is one of the first times there has been collaboration with Native people on how they should be represented,” Largo said.
The exhibit features the basketry of Geo Neptune, their grandmother Molly Neptune Parker and other contemporary and historic Wabanaki artists. Bowdoin’s permanent collection consists primarily of baskets acquired as gifts from patrons and one recently acquired piece of Geo Neptune’s. Other pieces are borrowed from the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum collection and the Maine Historical Society.
The exhibit was originated and implemented by the leaders of NASA, who selected the artwork, researched and produced labels.
“There weren’t a lot of restrictions on what we could do, and there was a lot of collaboration between us as curators, but also collaborating with staff,” Largo said.
Sabrina Lin ’21, Curatorial Assistant and Manager of Student Programs at the BCMA, appreciated the insights of student curators and emphasized the Museum’s role as offering support for their ideas.
“I think it’s really refreshing to have the perspective of students who are not necessarily art historians by training but feel very passionate about the subject … [especially] Native American curators who have lived experiences in Indigenous communities that understand the value of a tradition that is passed down through family units and generations. The spirit of community, nurturing and mentorship [are] really emphasized in the exhibition,” Lin said.
Neptune learned the art of basketmaking from their grandmother, Molly Neptune Parker, who was a celebrated basket-maker and indigenous leader.
“Molly was such a light,” Largo said. “She was such a big inspiration for a lot of us in terms of what we wanted to do with restarting traditions on campus.”
Neptune’s art is also linked to their identity as a member of the Snow Owl Clan and as a Two-Spirit. A Two-Spirit is someone known in indigenous communities as a person who sometimes embodies specialized work roles, gender variation, spiritual sanction and same-sex relations. The Wabanaki creation story of the first Two-Spirit person holds special significance for Neptune, who identifies as non-binary.
Other Wabanaki stories inspire Neptune’s artwork, such as “Apikcilu Binds the Sun.” This piece, featured in the BCMA’s exhibit, tells the story of why night and day exist. Neptune also crafted a basket named after the Passamaquoddy song “Ceremony of the Singing Stars” following the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida.
The immediacy and relevance of the traditions and stories that Neptune shares is part of what Largo and the other student curators wanted the Bowdoin community to draw from the exhibition.
“A lot of conversations surrounding native identity are rooted in the past tense, and we wanted to bring that to a more contemporary light, especially in terms of Wabanaki basketry,” Largo said. “It’s really rooted in tradition and cultural practices, but it’s also something that’s changed to become more contemporary, with more recent patterns that have been created. And it’s being shared by people like [Neptune].”