Sky Hopinka: Cloudless Blue Egress of Summer
by Sheila Regan
A monument is a kind of story. It tells the narrative of a place, a time and a people, and it does so from a very particular perspective, just like history books. And just as the veracity of history books suffers from their having been written by those in power, monuments are built by ruling forces. In the innovative two-channel video piece Cloudless Blue Egress of Summer 1 & 2 (2018) Sky Hopinka reaches back into a specific facet of Native American history in order to deconstruct it and ultimately offer a more complex version.
The oldest masonry fort in the US, San Marcos, also known as Fort Marion, was built in 1685 by the Spanish, and changed hands among Spain, Britain, the United States and the Confederate States of America six times in total. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, under US control, the fort was used to imprison people from a number of different Native American tribes, including the Seminole, the Chiricahua Apache, the southern Cheyenne and members of the Plains tribes. While imprisoned, many prisoners created ledger art—an artform with roots in Plains Hide painting—which has survived and is brought to life here in Hopinka’s visual document. In developing Cloudless, Hopinka, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation and descendent of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, spent time at San Marcos, located in St. Augustine, Florida, as well as at the St. Augustine Historical Society Research Library, where much of the ledger art created by Native Americans imprisoned in the fort is kept today.
The two videos book-ended an evening of Hopinka’s films at the CAVE Festival, but are also known to have been shown simultaneously on opposite sides of a gallery. Both channels frame the immensity of the ocean as an ominous presence locking in the prison and its prisoners, capturing the water’s danger and role in San Marcos’ isolation. In the first channel, indigo water billows toward the camera, seemingly floating on the surface, bobbing above and below. The second uses a lens that distorts the water’s shape, as if the viewer were looking through a prism. The water seems to move in slow motion, and is accompanied by echoing sounds that recall a well or a sewer. The fort, which had dungeons in the basement, was once surrounded by a 40-foot-wide moat (now filled with sand), and guarded by a watchtower that had a clear view of the surrounding area, including an inlet leading to the Atlantic Ocean.
After the watery beginning, the first channel shifts to the fort itself. The camera hovers outside of its sinister windows and grim walls while text by the Seminole warrior Coacoochee, describing his ingenious escape from the prison in 1837, scrolls over the screen. According to his testimony, he and his fellow escapees purposefully lost enough weight in order to abscond through a window. The video concludes with a long shot of the fort, which Hopinka slowly overlays with a baby blue fade that bleeds into the fort’s formidable structure, eventually making it look as though the building is flying. As Robin D.G. Kelley writes in Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (2002), “The most radical art is not protest art but works that take us to another place, envision a different way of seeing, perhaps a different way of feeling.” Following the sequence of shots that illustrate the fort’s forbidding presence, the dreamlike last trick of the camera acts as a clever way of disrupting not only the dominance of the monument’s physicality but also, by extension, its atrocious, traumatic legacy.
Much of the second channel is spent examining ledger drawings and sketches that were made by those held at San Marcos, beginning in the 1870s. At that time, the fort was supervised by Richard Henry Pratt, a proponent of aggressive assimilation tactics, who provided ledger paper and art supplies for the prisoners as a way of “rehabilitating” them. Ironically, ledger art became a tool for Plains Indians and others to preserve their own cultural traditions. As Diane Glancy writes in Fort Marion Prisoners and the Trauma of Native Education (2014), “Captain Pratt cut the prisoners’ hair and dressed them in army uniforms. He sat them in chairs at a table. Captain Pratt gave them ledger books. At first, they drew to remember. But then drawing became an act of memory. They remembered because they drew.” Depicting hunting scenes, battles and circus performers, the 150-year-old drawings today provide insight into the subjectivities, memories and imaginations of their makers.
At one point in the second channel, a cellphone camera comes into view and snaps a photo of one of the drawings. Here, Hopinka points firstly to a new, self-determined means of constructing history, one that leaves traditional archival processes out of the equation. Secondly, the moment reveals the importance of inscribing such a deeply personal layer of this history into our contemporary psyche—a layer of nuance not included in school curricula—and for these overlooked histories to move beyond the walls of tidy, sterile archival rooms and into general public consciousness.
Whereas the first channel included the words of Coacoochee’s escape, the second features descriptions of prisoners’ experiences taken from Glancy’s book, such as this observation of Howling Wolf, who became well known for his artistic ability: “After Howling Wolf saw the ocean, he thought the moon was water. It had the same marks as the shore where they walked. He knew there were waves on the moon as they looked at it above them.” Later, Hopinka includes the poetic words of Cheyenne artist Bear’s Heart, from Glancy’s book: “I dreamed they tied a pencil to my hand. I dreamed they tied the ocean to our beds.” Like the ledger drawings created by Howling Wolf and others, Bear’s Heart’s quote speaks to the power of imagination as a tool for surviving the most inhumane degradation.