Indigenous Artists Stood Tall in the Wake of Nuclear Testing

At the El Paso Museum of Art, a summer show brings to light the resilience of Indigenous artists in the wake of nuclear power.

ANOINTED (film still), 2017. Video, 6 min. 8 sec. Written and performed by Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner (Marshallese-Majol). Directed by Daniel Lin.

In a dozen years spanning 1946 through 1958, the United States, flush with a World War II victory secured in part through the dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and hurtling itself into the Cold War with the Soviet Union, pummeled the Marshall Islands in Micronesia with some 67 nuclear bombs. The attacks—or rather the atomic testing program—destroyed some of the islands entirely, and saddled others with millions of cubic feet of radioactive soil and plutonium. From 1952 to 1963, Britain detonated a dozen major and 200 minor nuclear devices across Maralinga in Southern Australia, home to the southern branch of the Pitjantjatjara people.

The exhibition “Exposure: Native Art and Political Ecology” gathers together art made by Indigenous artists from those areas and around the world, in work that explores the ongoing effects of nuclear testing, the mining such weapons require, and the accidents that sometimes result from them. Originating at the Institute for Indian American Arts in Santa Fe, the show is now on view at the El Paso Museum of Art, arriving just in time for conversations about the erasure of Native Americans from the biopic Oppenheimer and other ways we tell the history of nuclear weapons. 

Hilda Moodoo (Pitjantjatjara) and Kunmanara Queama (Pitjantjatjara), Destruction I, 2002, synthetic polymer paint on canvas. Art Gallery of South Australia, Santos Fund for Aboriginal Art 2002. Copyright: Courtesy the artists.

Indeed, the museum partnered with Alamo Drafthouse in August for a screening of the film, which it characterized as having an “opposing” viewpoint to the exhibition. The show’s point of view asserts the reality of native peoples’ presence on the land in which nuclear testing was conducted, and the disastrous effects of nuclear power on their bodies and homes. In Daniel Lin’s short Anointed (2018), for example, the Marshall Islander poet, performance artist, and educator Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner traces ways the people of Runit Island have wrestled with the legacy of a radioactive waste repository the United States left on the region’s Enewetak Atoll, and the legends that still linger around it.

In much of the work, the mythopoetics of man-made disasters glow. Destruction I, (2002), a dot painting made by Pitjantjatjara artists Hilda Moodoo and Kunmanara Queama, utilizes the traditional Aboriginal technique for a portrait not perhaps of their homeland, but of the mushroom cloud that bloomed monstrously upon it. It’s a striking reminder that nuclear war isn’t a threat—for much of the global population over the last century, it’s real life. 

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