Jeremy Dennis Uses Art to Raise Political and Social Awareness

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Jeremy Dennis's "Greetings from Shinnecock" postcard. Courtesy Parrish Art Museum.

Last June, artist Jeremy Dennis, a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation, moved into his newly renovated ancestral home on the Shinnecock Territory and in August, welcomed Yanyan Huang, the first artist to participate in what is known as Ma’s House, a residency program named for his late grandmother that welcomes Indigenous and artists of color to spend time making work on-site.

To date, six artists have stayed and worked at Ma’s House representing a range of backgrounds, with artists of Colombian, Puerto Rican, Pakistani, South Korean, African and Jamaican descent all taking part in the program.

“I hope to keep it going year round and artists of color can apply at any time,” Dennis explained in a recent phone interview. “There’s no fee to apply or stay, just the expenses to get here. I’m hoping that people are interested and there is a lot of cultural exchange. We have people scheduled up until August 2022.”

Dennis, who has taken part in a dozen artist residencies around the country himself, finds two to four weeks to be an ideal length for programs like this.

Artist Jeremy Dennis, founder of Ma’s House. Photo by Angela Pham.

“I know the value of artists having a separation from everyday life,” he said. “Shinnecock is a very small community and many people don’t know about us. But one thing that’s been surprising is every artist that has come through has been inspired by the atmosphere and this place, and even after leaving they’re still posting about Shinnecock and their projects. Shinnecock is growing as an idea.

“The other thing I love is we’re starting to get local nonprofit partnerships. I’m personally trying to get local institutions to award stipends or honorariums to artists,” he added. “With Shinnecock, there’s 500 of us here on this very small territory but it feels much smaller year round. We don’t have many public programs or community events, so I’m hoping Ma’s House will expose people to the arts and show that they belong and can be a part of it.”

On Friday, January 14 at 6 p.m., members of the whole East End community are invited to join Dennis at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill for a screening of “Ma’s House,” a short film that documents the renovation of the home and its subsequent new life as an artist residency.

“The film is a combination of the renovation of Ma’s House and interviews with people associated with the house’s history and other Shinnecock artists who we hope to include and support through the Ma’s House project,” Dennis said. “It’s a kind of glimpse of the future and explaining the context of where the house is, the progress and how much work has gone into it.”

Jacoub Reyes working with woodblock prints during his recent Ma’s House residency. Courtesy Jeremy Dennis.

“Ma’s House,” which was shot by Dennis during the renovation process, is presented as part of ALL ARTS, a culture hub created by The WNET Group for its series “The First Twenty,” which, using artists as guides, explores events that have caused a shift in American consciousness in the first two decades of the 21st century. After the screening, Dennis will talk about the film and the history of the Shinnecock Hills region of Southampton and its significance to his people. Guests will then be invited to participate in a postcard making workshop at the Parrish to advocate for a building moratorium in Shinnecock Hills, the ancestral territory of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

“The idea of the postcards is to advance a concern of the Shinnecock Nation,” explained Dennis who hosted a similar postcard event via Zoom in early 2021 around the Shinnecock monuments, a pair of revenue producing billboards erected by the Nation in 2019 along Route 27. “There was a lot of controversy over having them built at all. The [State] Department of Transportation and then Governor Cuomo were trying to block it. As an artist, I wanted to create a postcard event to express our local support for this project and allow the Shinnecock to have economic development.”

For that workshop, some 40 people created 4” x 6” postcards supporting the Nation’s efforts and sent them to Cuomo’s office.

“Of course, we didn’t get any response,” Dennis laughed.

This time around, the event will be held at the Parrish Art Museum and the postcards will have a more local target — Supervisor Jay Schneiderman of Southampton Town Hall.

“With the Parrish, I love the idea of small art and everyone can make it,” he said. “After the film, the Parrish will let us have a hangout for an hour or two to create our own postcards. They will collect them and ship them on the same day. But instead of the monuments, these will be directed to Jay Schneiderman and the effort is toward protecting the Shinnecock Hills.”

Shelley Niro “Day at the Beach (from Toys Aren’t Us),” 2017, 20″ x 26,” will be included in “Outcropping – Indigenous Art Now” opening February 4 at Southampton Arts Center. Courtesy Jeremy Dennis.

Though after more than 30 years of struggle, the Nation earned a victory last summer with the town’s $5.6 million purchase of Sugar Loaf Hill, a 4.5-acre parcel in Shinnecock Hills that once served as the tribe’s most sacred burial ground, Dennis notes there’s still a long way to go.

“The Shinnecock Hills are a sacred landscape for the Shinnecock people,” he said. “Ancestors, dating back over 3,000 thousand years are buried here… The Shinnecock Nation has pursued and received federal recognition to regain these lands with the help of New York State but have yet to receive support from any New York State Governor that has held office since 2010.”

Dennis is not only an artist, but a strong and vocal advocate for the Shinnecock Nation and all Indigenous populations. On Friday, February 4, the Southampton Arts Center (SAC) will open “Outcropping ­— Indigenous Art Now,” a multimedia exhibition curated by Dennis that celebrates contemporary Shinnecock artists along with Indigenous artists from sovereign nations throughout the United States.

“At the SAC show, it will be mostly artists who are Indigenous and from the U.S., and perhaps will include eight Shinnecock tribal members, plus a handful of people from Central and South America of Indigenous descent and some from Canada and maybe even Maori from New Zealand,” said Dennis. “I’m asking for small works, since SAC is such a large space I think we can be very inclusive, and have everyone from people at the pinnacle of their careers to local hobbyists in the same space.”

Denis Silva Dennis’s “Land Back Butter,” 2021. Acrylic painting, 16″ x 20.” The painting will be among those on view at Southampton Arts Center in “Outcropping.” Courtesy Jeremy Dennis.

Dennis’s goal in curating the show is to present pieces that illustrate the vast array of talent and styles to be found in work by Indigenous artists.

“We have had so many different phases. In the Northeast and east of the Mississippi, there’s the phase where Native people don’t exist, or if we do exist, we’re too Black, or the phase if we’re still alive, the only art we can make is artifacts or pottery.”

But times and perceptions are changing and Dennis finds that more institutions are opening their doors and highlighting work by artists who, in the past, have often been marginalized.

“My mom is also an artist, so is her uncle, Herbert Randall. They have stories throughout their careers about being pushed aside because no one wanted Native art or art by women,” Dennis said. “Since Black Lives Matter and the social inequalities highlighted in the past couple years, people are starting to realize opportunities for everyone.”

And with the emphasis on making connections, Dennis notes that every week during the run of “Outcroppings,” fellow Shinnecock artist Shane Weeks will organize an open studio, an art talk or a community hangout at SAC.

“The spirt of the show is community and bringing people together,” said Dennis. “I’m excited to bring people there and show art and explore how we can just be together in the space.”

“An Evening With Jeremy Dennis” film and postcard workshop is Friday, January 14, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. in the Lichtenstein Theater at the Parrish Art Museum, 279 Montauk Highway. Register at parrishart.org.

“Outcropping — Indigenous Art Now” curated by Jeremy Dennis will run February 4 to April 9 at the Southampton Arts Center, 25 Job’s Lane, Southampton. More than 50 artists will participate, including several from the Shinnecock Nation. For more information, visit southamptonartscenter.org/outcropping.

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