#StayHome: Indigenous Peoples Art Gallery goes virtual during COVID-19

#StayHome Live Virtual Poetry Reading Series

Indigenous Peoples Art Gallery and Cafe (@indigenouspeoplesartgalleryandcafe) -- Saturdays at 7 p.m., Free

Dawson Davenport –courtesy of Indigenous Peoples Art Gallery and Cafe

As any discussion of the ongoing pandemic should note, small businesses, organizations and communities have, in many cases, seen more pronounced effects from COVID-19 than their larger counterparts. These entities, not usually included in major media discourse, nevertheless face the same questions as the world at large: How do we transition our pre-COVID lives into this current pandemic reality? How do we address the inequalities in our social constructs that coronavirus has exposed?

From conditions in hotspot factories to issues of accessibility in our education system, the depressing truth of it all is that marginalized groups, already vulnerable, are the ones most impacted by the virus.

A recent virtual poetry performance touched on this truth. The reading was part of the ongoing series #StayHome, programmed and livestreamed by the Indigenous Peoples Art Gallery. Meskwaki Nation member, author and spoken-word poet Dawson Davenport hosts the series live from the gallery in Iowa City.

The weekly, online-only poetry series began in mid-April. Since then, it has played host to a wide variety of Indigenous artists from across the country and even tapped into international artists with a featured guest from New Zealand. Born out of necessity, the #StayHome series looks to amplify voices lost in the shuffle of mainstream politics and news cycles.

The series, like office Zoom meetings and virtual happy hours, is a digital replacement for pre-pandemic IRL activities.

“The idea stemmed from my art gallery, and the vision I had for that,” Davenport said. “This is what I had envisioned for that, bringing in Indigenous artists to showcase here in Iowa.”

The financial impact of losing those in-person opportunities was also a factor, another in a long list of ways that the pandemic has hit artists especially hard.

“I had to figure out something, because this gallery was my way of making an income, as well as using my newly earned education,” Davenport continued. “So, the idea was taking what I was already doing and going virtual with it.”

Taking the series online also grants Davenport a platform to talk to members of his community in a safe, socially distant way. A Facebook post sharing the first #StayHome event said they hoped the series would “provide some entertainment, as we want to promote the message and idea of staying home. We feel it is important that we protect our elders, and young children. By staying home we are helping protect those on the frontlines, the essential workers, and particularly the healthcare workers.”

In early May, I joined Davenport and Las Vegas hip-hop artist, producer, activist and polymath Olmeca to participate in #StayHome 5. We each performed and, in our own ways, spoke to those issues that COVID-19 is exposing in our communities. To me, it was proof that a socially distant world needs the digital performances and conversations that the #StayHome series provides.

On my evening with the series, Davenport and I found common ground in how COVID-19 has affected our respective communities. My hometown of West Liberty had an outbreak at its turkey processing plant. Many of the plant’s workers are immigrant parents of first-generation children like me. In response, Davenport related how hard the mandated closure of businesses hit many of the Meskwaki elders in his community.

This ties in with the ways in which Davenport says this #StayHome series can speak directly to Indigenous communities throughout the country, providing not only art and entertainment, but solace and support.

“We can share our stories and express what we are going through with our art,” he said. “Other people can see our experiences from where they live in the country and can relate or find some kind of peace, by knowing that young Indigenous people care about them as well, and that we acknowledge their struggle, because we too are facing that as well. So they are not alone, and hopefully we can bring some positive joy into their lives, if only for an hour or so.”

Bringing that joy comes with challenges, particularly when planning is done entirely through digital means.

“The challenge is not being able to communicate in person, or when I recruit people, it seems harder to have a conversation, because you have to wait for emails, or messages. It seemed like before hosting or organizing events, it was easier to do with face-to-face meetings,” Davenport said.

However, those struggles also bring opportunities for collaboration and audience reach not possible before.

“This format has been easier as well, because artists seem to feel more comfortable being home or performing from the comforts of their own home,” Davenport said. “Plus, we have a captured audience, and that is something that you couldn’t have in person. People from all over the country can watch.”

Ultimately, the #StayHome series is another way to connect in unprecedented times—times where social connection and constructs are changing in ways no one could have imagined a few short months ago. Viewers can tune in on Saturday evenings for a wide spectrum of artistic expression, from fiery hip-hop diatribes to comforting words for those impacted by a virus our nation is still grappling with.

Davenport is humble when he speaks about the highlights of the series for him so far: “Having my friends be on,” he said. “Showcasing their work, and just reconnecting with them, since we haven’t been able to connect as much, during this pandemic. Also, getting artists who I’ve always wanted to see perform and having so much support from everyone.”

“It’s cool that people are liking this series,” Davenport added.

He hopes that #StayHome continues to grow. In the future, Davenport intends to simply “continue to do what I’m doing,” he said, with hopes of “bigger-named artists” joining in.

“There are so many Indigenous artists, both up and coming and experienced, that I would like to highlight,” he said.

And now, WE the grandchildren
Of those you have
Desecrated, are
On their prayers
For what
Our Ancestors envisioned
For us.
A better world.
Dawson Davenport

Chuy Renteria is a writer and dancer residing in Iowa City. He is the public engagement coordinator for Hancher Auditorium and is currently working with the University of Iowa Press on a memoir about growing up in the town of West Liberty, the first majority Hispanic town in Iowa. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 282.

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