Nurturing Your Roots: My Visit to the Nuwu Art Gallery

Photo by Lauren Dominguez

By Lauren Dominguez

As someone who is of mixed race, it’s always such a shock to be labeled as one side and to have the other completely disregarded. I’ve always lived within those black and white areas. My father is Mexican and my mother is various percentages of Western European. I’ve grown up in a very Euro-centric way. My father is very Americanized and since we are both light-skinned (myself more so), I’ve always been considered white. I’ve always been proud of my culture even though I have grown up extremely removed from it.

I’ve always wanted to connect more with my culture. I’m not very close with my extended family on either side, so it’s been hard to learn about my ancestors. I don’t know where to start when speaking with other Latinx persons. I always feel like the little white girl that I felt like when I was around my father’s family. 

I have never been ashamed of my heritage, but I was never given the tools to be able to be part of it. When I see those who are able to be so vocal and proud of their roots there’s a little part of me that puffs up with pride as well. One such example from my time at UNLV has been Fawn Douglas.

Fawn Douglas is a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) candidate that has not only been making artwork that celebrates her Southern Paiute culture but is also a strong activist for multiple POC communities. She has been part of an anti-racism video series from the Institute for a Progressive Nevada, marched for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, and founded Nuwu.

Nuwu Art Gallery is a POC-owned space in Las Vegas that aims to promote, maintain, and revive the cultural traditions of multiple communities of color. On April 22, 2022, Fawn Douglas opened her thesis show, SOOV, at Nuwu Art Gallery + Community Center.

Nuwu has grown significantly since a series of soft openings in December 2020. The community center has partnered with multiple non-profit organizations such as IndigenousAF and Indigenous Educators Empowerment. SOOV’s opening reception will be the first exhibition that invites the public into the space.

Soov is the Southern Paiute word for “willow” or “sumac”. In the exhibition announcement, Douglas writes, “It [soov] is a word that represents me: strength, creativity and a builder of things that will last.” This show exemplifies all of these traits.

When walking into the gallery, the sun shone brightly through the windows, high along the walls. This is the only source of light for the building. While this is the first time that Nuwu is open to the public, it is still under construction. As Douglas and her partner, A.B. Wilkinson, joked, the exposed wires snaking out from the ceiling were not live and should be harmless.

The building Nuwu now calls home was once a Jewish place of worship. During Douglas’ opening remarks she comments on the previous worshipers still visiting the building to pray at the door. Once being bought by the activist collective, construction began to restore the historic building to make it a home for community members and art makers alike.

The former synagogue still bears signs of its former life. During her remarks, Douglas points out tiles that were salvaged from the former house of worship and placed into an alcove to serve as an altar to the ground’s spiritual energy.

This moment briefly brought my mind back to another MFA candidate, Laurence Myers Reese, whose exhibition explored trans-ness within the context of his Orthodox Jewish faith. It was interesting to find this particular parallel between the community work that these cohorts have done. While highly likely unintentional, it was this serendipitous moment that brought a small smile as I continued around the space.

After brief remarks from the artist, a prayer was led by an indigenous elder to bless the building, the artist, and those who enter the gallery to seek art and community. The late afternoon sun created the illusion of the smoke from the ceremony dancing in the air. I won’t go into specifics out of respect, but a small part of me felt like an intruder. This other, greater, part of me, was able to breathe a little deeper and feel peace.

At the prayer’s conclusion, the gathered crowd dispersed as some turned to admire the artwork, and others began to converse with friends and community members. 

Along the north wall resided 3 vessels made from conduit that was salvaged during the renovations. Douglas described this method of material sourcing as being similar to the foraging for willow that her ancestors did to create their woven vessels. It was a somber reminder of the urbanization of this sacred land, but also a testament to the resilience of these peoples to preserve cultural tradition.

On the South wall hung three printed canvases depicting three young girls dressed in traditional regalia, or “indigenous couture” as Douglas said while bantering with the crowd. These dresses were sewn by the artist/activist as part of her exhibition, but also as a showing of community. “It really takes a village,” she says while describing how items used in their dress were passed down through their family line.

The photograph in the middle depicted them beyond their years. They were neatly lined up, serious-faced, and it was almost like looking at an old photograph shot during a time when a single exposure took minutes rather than being immediate. The tone of this singular print is somber, but is framed on each side by pictures of the same three girls joking and smiling. A depiction of joy.

Joy is the theme of Soov. During a time of hardship, when Douglas and the Core are fighting to build Nuwu, when POC are targeted nationwide, when violence is seemingly everywhere…Soov stands as a celebration of joy and of community. 

Once the crowd reconvened around a clearing in the middle of the room, the trio of girls who were adorned in the same regalia as in the photographs, began to dance in inter-tribal styles. The three weaved around each other as they danced around the circle at different speeds, matching the individual tribal tradition they represented.

The room grew dim as dark clouds from the earlier rain that washed the ground in preparation for this event and the approaching evening grew closer. During some final remarks, both Douglas and the girls’ father described the importance of these young girls learning traditional dances and their native language as a means of maintaining their indigenous identity and helping to build a stronger future for their people.

I was particularly entranced by the young girls. They were light-skinned from a mixed heritage, but they were encouraged in their exploration of their indigenous culture. The child part of me that lives deep within ached while watching them dance. 

I hope to one day feel comfortable enough to be able to claim my Latinx heritage as those young girls were able to claim their indigenous one. To feel as if I have earned the right to claim it. It was healing to see that feeling nurtured in this younger generation, and it gave me hope that one day I will be able to find that permission within myself.

Fawn Douglas’ MFA Thesis Exhibition will be on view at Nuwu Art Gallery + Community Center until May 7, 2022 with a closing reception and artist talk on May 6, 2022 from 6-8pm. Hours for the gallery can be found on Douglas’ Instagram @nuwuart, and more information on the Core can be found on nuwuart.com. 

Douglas and her partner encouraged visitors to visit throughout the run of the exhibition as renovations continue and more work is installed.

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