Recovering the Classics had a 50×50 exhibit at its most prominent location yet: The National Archives, as part of DPLAfest.
The piece, “Space Raft Time Ship,” was created by Anthony Johnson, a Navajo artist who traveled in from Phoenix to execute the pieces.
Anthony managed to design, construct, install and perform his piece in 72 hours after he landed.
The artist says, “My main concern was to honor all the beautiful book covers. Artists from all around the world are participating in this amazing project, so I wanted their work to be the focus, but I also wanted to make a statement about storytelling and highlight some little known facts about the founding of our nation. So I channeled one of my favorite books, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (hence the raft) and decided to make the piece about our collective life experience through storytelling. So that’s how the name works. We’re all on this incredible space raft called Earth, moving through time, and the stories we write, our histories, our heritage…these are the things that allow us to evolve our consciousness. They shape our experience in Space and enhance being alive.”
To give emphasis to the book covers, Anthony wove paper covers printed in 12 foot sections through metal grates to create a rug-like patten. He also attached them to pieces of rope knotted in deliberate intervals. He says both weaving and knotting are methods that Indigenous People use to tell stories and keep history.
“I’m Navajo and my people are known for weaving. Some rugs have even been sold for a million dollars. But a lot of people don’t know these rugs are like books for us. They contain stories and knowledge that is passed on orally from generation to generation, just like a book can be. With the knotted rope, I wanted to show that many Indigenous People had intricate documentation systems. In fact, the Incan People used a system of knot tying called Quipu to keep history. People in that society were trained specially to create and interpret that system. This is just like how we use the written word to communicate today. And that’s why the smaller book covers are attached to knotted pieces of rope.”
Because the work was displayed in the National Archives, he wanted to reference documentation systems other than the written word. This is in spirit with Recovering the Classics because we are using visual imagery to reinvigorate interest in classic books.
Lastly, the wooden structure was created to showcase the book covers and give a raft-like feel. Not only was this practical to hang the rope from, it is also a deeply significant representation for the artist himself.
As Anthony describes in his own words:
When you get the opportunity to show something in the same building as the US Constitution, it better have some meaning. Some people might look at the wooden structure as some pieces of wood tied together, but it is actually a representation of the many types of lodges and shelters we Indigenous Peoples use to tell stories and govern ourselves. The tripod structure is reminiscent of the tipis Plains People use in their life way as both shelters and ceremonial houses. Additionally, the three poles also represent the three branches of our American government and that we are all connected to the Earth, the Ultimate governance system.
The pole structure is also symbolic of the lodges our people build to dance and hold ceremony in. A lot of people don’t know that Benjamin Franklin frequented the villages of the Iroquois Confederacy and Algonquin people around the Northeast United States, documenting his thoughts in an essay called “Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America.
He extracted many of their practices and shared them with the Founding Fathers while they sought to make a government that was more harmonious. That’s why everyone in Congress has the opportunity to speak. That’s why they sit in a circle. He got these and many other concepts from the Indigenous people in his area. The other part of these lodges that is important is the fire. That’s why in the piece, each tripod has a pile of cards below it. They represent fire. It’s something we use in all our ceremonies, in all our homes. We talk around fire, tell stories. We warm ourselves. We cook. We read books. There’s something primal and essential about it.”