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Introduction

The relationship of Native people to place, historically and metaphysically, is well-documented by scholars and expressed at length in the visual and literary arts. Indeed, this relationship to “the land” is often cited as the very root of our indigeneity. Geography has shaped and defined Native cultures, literally and conceptually, over countless generations. Many of our origin stories and understanding of the universe relate to geographical features in the landscape, and the material culture of each community is based on the natural environment of our homelands. For more than 500 years, land has also been a site and source of conflict and struggle with outsiders—be they non-Indian settlers seeking farmland, or commercial enterprises eager to exploit natural resources. As a subject for Native artists, then, the land/landscape is laden with history and expectation. Land is home, culture, and identity, but it also represents violence, isolation, and loss.

The artists in Off the Map all use the landscape as both muse and subject, but none seek to represent a specific place you can locate in a guidebook or on a map. All landscapes, despite their intentions, are imaginary constructs, and these artists make no attempt to literally depict a specific place and time. For Emmi Whitehorse landscape is an ethereal place of memory, suffused with impressions of land and water through smell, touch, and light. James Lavadour equates walking over the hills and mountains of his home community on the Umatilla Indian Reservation with the movement of his hand across the surface of his paintings. Carlos Jacanamijoy’s vivid landscapes embody creation and the transformative Putamayo jungle of Colombia through abstractions of color and light. Jeffrey Gibson creates his landscapes as an anti-colonialist act that defines his Native identity, warts and all. Erica Lord explores the liminal space that exists between her identities and homes, a world not fixed in time or place. Together, their work embodies the longing and emotion, connection to and detachment from the land that are universal to contemporary Native experience.

—Kathleen Ash-Milby (Navajo), Curator