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“I would like for people to see a proud Native American with a kind heart.” Handwritten, these words border a portrait of a man who softly smiles wearing sunglasses and a green shirt. His name is Jeremy and he is one of the Lumbee Indians that Lumbee artist Ashley Minner photographed for her series, The Exquisite Lumbee Project. This multimedia portrait series combines portraits of Lumbee Indians with their handwritten responses to questions about their identity.  

Minner lives in what is considered the diaspora for Lumbee Indians in Baltimore, Maryland where she is a PhD candidate in American Studies at UMBC. The traditional homeland for Lumbee Indians is located in Robeson County, North Carolina which is where Lumbee artist Alisha Locklear lives and works as a Museum Assistant at the Museum of the Southeast American Indian. With bold colors and evocative symbolism, she too explores what her Lumbee identity means to her.

One of these paintings, “Mother,” represents the responsibility of motherhood and how the desire to be cared for connects us all. The image uses black, blue, and white to create a scene where a woman seems to dance or offer her heart forward. Eyes closed, her form expands and reaches out beyond the image through columns of color. The cosmos seem to swirl around her. It is just one of her many vibrant, emotive paintings that draws inspiration from her own life, emotions, and identity.

Together, their artwork will be on display for a joint exhibit called Unique As We Are Alike: Contemporary Works by Lumbee Artists hosted at The Center for the Study of the American South until December 12, 2018. Unique As We Are Alike is an exploration of contemporary Lumbee identity that focuses on the experiences of Lumbees defining themselves and their communities despite years of being defined by others. This process, through symbolism and portraiture, creates a feeling of connectedness, compassion, and empathy, which showcases the uniqueness of Lumbee identity while underscoring certain commonalities of the human condition.

 The opening reception for Unique As We Are Alike, which took place on October 6, 2018, was a poignant and beautiful celebration. The original date for the reception had been September 14, but had to be rescheduled due to Hurricane Florence’s impending landfall. Just two years ago, Robeson County was devastated by Hurricane Matthew, and was hit hard again by Hurricane Florence. As Center director Malinda Maynor Lowery’s daughter led in singing the song, “Proud To Be a Lumbee,” on our porch, it felt like a joyous rallying cry.

This feeling of coming together and celebrating the joys of being a Lumbee radiated from not just the art or song, but even through the food which featured banana pudding, peach cake, sweet potato bread, and ham biscuits, through which our hearts and stomachs were filled with a feeling of celebration over what we share in common as well as having the opportunity to learn from one another as Lumbees and non-Lumbees gathered in one place.

This feeling of joy and community filled the evening as the opening reception acted also as a celebration of Malinda Maynor Lowery’s most recent book, “The Lumbee Indians: An American Struggle,” from which she read a few selected passages including:

“In the beginning
there was the water,
And the pine.
From the sky
A woman fell.
the Creator made
Four daughters.
In any case,
the People came into being,
And the People
Have remained.

Then there were the Names,
And the Names remained
With the People also.

There was a man sent from Virginia, and his name was James Lowry.
James married Sally, after the war at the time of the journey.
Sally was the mother of William, the Patriot soldier, and Jimmie, the Jockey.
William the father of Allen, the One Marked for Death.
Allen the husband of Cathrean and then Mary. …
Cathrean was the mother of Patrick, the Preacher. …

Patrick, the Preacher, was the father of Martha, the bootlegger, and Emmaline.
Emmaline the wife of Preston, the School Master.
Martha the mother of Lucy, the gardener.
Lucy the mother of Waltz, like the dance. …

Mary, second of Allen’s wives, was the mother of Henry Berry, the Outlaw.
Mary also the mother of Calvin, the Preacher.
Waltz the husband of Louise.
Louise the mother of Malinda, who married Willie, the Songwriter, and then Grayson, the Storyteller.
Malinda the mother of Lydia, the Loved.

Behold, how the light shines in the darkness,
And the darkness did not overcome it.”

Along with Malinda Maynor Lowery’s reading of her book, Ashley Minner and Alisha Locklear Monroe shared what inspired their work. Minner discussed how, in Baltimore, people were confused by the appearance of Lumbee Indians. She decided “to do a portrait series where we could look like superheroes.” Hence the birth of Exquisite Lumbees, where Lumbee Indians living in Baltimore had their portrait taken with their own words, and own handwriting, overlayed on the image to describe their identity.

Locklear Monroe discussed the inspiration her piece, “Not Worthy,” which was how Lumbee Indians had their “Lumbeeness” assessed by white colonizers through measuring their facial features, the texture of their hair, and more. This led to siblings and other relatives to be considered different percentages of Lumbee and took the power from the Lumbee tribe to define and determine their identity.  

Interviews with the artists, where they discuss their work and inspiration, are available via WUNC and the Daily Tarheel. Ashley Minner has additional portraits from her Exquisite Lumbees collection on display at the Greenville Museum of Art as part of their exhibit, Postmodern Native: Contemporary Lumbee Art.

This exhibit will be available for viewing at the Love House and Hutchins Forum until December 12, 2018 which you can view during normal business hours (Monday through Friday, 9 am to 5 pm).

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