First American Art Magazine No. 22, Spring 2019 - Page 70

PROFILE NORTHERN CHUMASH CARVER, BASKET MAKER, & REGALIA MAKER LEAH MATA-FRAGUA By America Meredith I N 1542, when Europeans first arrived in what is now the state of California, the Indigenous Californians had more linguistic diversity than the entire European continent. Today California has the largest Native American population of any US state, and the second highest number of tribes, behind Alaska. Yet, the Native population is dwarfed by the state’s vast non-Native population, often causing Indigenous Californians to feel invisible in their own land. Many tribes don’t have federal recognition. As Native Californians strive to keep their cultures, ceremonies, and languages alive and thriving through the 21st century, Leah Mata-Fragua is on the forefront of this effort. I first saw Mata-Fragua’s artwork at the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair and Market years ago, when she displayed an unmistakably Californian dress at the awards preview in the museum’s vast Steele Auditorium. Mata-Fragua and her nephew patiently endured my gushing with excitement at seeing Indigenous Californian artwork at the Heard fair. That was one of Mata-Fragua’s earliest forays into the Native art market circuit—a platform she can use to educate the public about Chumash arts, culture, and issues. The Native art market world is also where she met her husband, acclaimed stone sculptor and musician, Cliff Fragua (Jemez Pueblo). They married at Santa Fe Indian Market in 2016, and they’ve been exhibiting together and encouraging each other ever since. Mata-Fragua maintains ties with her home community to increase the visibility of her yak tit y u tit y u yak tiłhini, or Northern Chumash people, and to follow in the footsteps of her artist-an- cestors. Her great-great-grandmother was Rosario Cooper (1845–1917), the last fluent speaker of the tiłhini language, whose recorded translations and notes are struggle to figure out where your place is on that spectrum. How do you label yourself in the art world? Going to the Smithsonian was great, because, while I knew my grandmother’s stuff and our family’s stuff were there, I didn’t know how much of it was there. AM: Were you part of the Artists Leadership Program that goes to Suitland, Maryland, to research their collections? helping a new generation learn to speak the language. Leah Mata-Fragua sees art, culture, and language as all inextricably connected. AM: You didn’t start out in the art market. Would you like to talk about your own journey: how you began making art? And I use art in the broadest possible term. LMF: I’m from a community of artists. I’m not trained by school. I never even used the word artist, until someone said to me, “Oh, you’re an artist.” And I was like, “No, I just make things.” They replied, “No, you’re an artist.” But I said, “I’m uncom- fortable with that word.” Mine is a living culture, and what I do is often utilitarian. But when I went to the fellowship at the Smithsonian, art was a word they used there. They had an artist marketing class for us. I didn’t even have an artist statement or bio, because that’s just not something a community artist does. I had to learn art marketing language and learn the way the art world talks. It was a big learning curve. It’s a 68 | WWW.FIRSTAMERICANARTMAGAZINE.COM LMF: Yes. My great-great-grandmother [Rosario Cooper] has work there, and almost all the jewelry they have for the northernmost Chumash was from my village. That was validating. I never fully understood why sustaining culture was such an important role for women in my family. When I saw all that jewelry from our community, I thought, Wow, I guess that’s just what we do. It’s just natural. Actually I resisted showing at markets, but I would be at local events, mostly basket gatherings and dances, and Diana [Terrazas, the Autry Museum’s commu- nity outreach manager] would say, “I really, really need a California person at the Autry.” We felt the Autry was for Southwest or Plains work, so it didn’t match what we thought of for our work or ourselves. Finally, I said, “All right, all right. I’ll do it.” She helped me fill out an application; I had no idea what to do. Then she asked, “Do you have an entry piece?” I’m like, “What do you mean?” And she said, “We have a competition you should enter.” This was only a couple of weeks before the show, so I was up until four in the morning finishing it. I raced over and got it entered, and then she calls me a little bit later and says, “You won. Can you come back?” So I go there. I’m in sweats. She says, “Okay, you ready