Monarch migration a metaphor for native America in Bemis Center exhibit

“Monarchs: Brown and Native Contemporary Artists in the Path of the Butterfly” at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts looks at the Monarch butterfly migration as an analogy for Native American culture.

Danielle Meadows


In fluttering swarms of orange and black, millions of monarchs migrate from Canada to Mexico every year.

These butterflies, with only a lifespan of a few weeks, have an ancestral duty to make the pilgrimage south. Unable to survive cold northern winters, it takes four generations of monarchs to finish the 3,000-mile journey to Mexico—and there’s a growing number of obstacles in their way.

“Monarchs: Brown and Native Contemporary Artists in the Path of the Butterfly” is currently on display at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. The exhibit uses monarch migration to examine social and political issues involving people native to the Americas. While each piece exudes a deeply rooted love and respect for native culture, the exhibit collectively expresses concern for past and present problems.

Defending Standing Rock from the Dakota Access Pipeline and the president’s call for the border wall are influencing issues throughout this exhibit. The butterfly migration geographically connects them both, which is why Curator-in-Residence Risa Puleo decided early to show work from those native to the Americas. Puleo said in an interview with the Omaha World-Herald that she “saw a continuity” between those two events that she didn’t often hear discussed.

One case was the historic, yet problematic policy of the United States to force Native Americans onto reservations—essentially enclosing them within the country—and the other, building a wall to exclude Mexicans. Puleo learned both are indigenous to the Americas, leading to research on indigenous presence in the same Midwest states butterflies migrate through annually.

An expansive collection of work by 37 artists was chosen by Puleo, all of which reflect vibrant cultures, loyal families and divided politics. Some artists use traditional native materials like animal hide and wood, while others use more conventional oil paint on canvas or ceramic. Three different galleries inhabit the exhibition, labeled “Transformation,” “Migrations” and “Inheritance.”

Large scale pieces like “All You Took I Gladly Gave” by Jeffery Gibson fill most of a room, with 24-foot tipi poles attached to a buffalo hide trunk. Nancy Friedemann-Sanchez’s works using mopa mopa—a bold lacquer—are beautifully intricate, featuring overflowing pastel flowers and vegetation at first glance. A closer look at the piece occupying an entire gallery wall reveals a much darker image.

One area of the exhibit displays an obscure sculpture of a cactus, featuring demonic faces and shiny gold accents. Inside a dark room in one of the galleries, a video of a remarkable speech projects on the wall, given by a man speaking Spanish outside of a discount mall. Another stand-out is a collection of photos titled “My Home is Where My Tipi Sits” by Wendy Red Star, showing mundane but striking snapshots inside Montana’s Crow Indian Reservation.

“Monarchs” features something unexpected at every turn. The past is perfectly woven into the present in this exhibit—celebrating native history even in the most modern looking pieces. All of the pieces collectively and individually act as platforms, promoting awareness and dialogue on the lives of those represented in the art.

The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts is located at 724 S 12th St. “Monarchs” runs through Feb 24. Admission is free, with hours from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday. For more information, visit