March 16 - April 30
carissa lillian clark
What does a map do to a place? How do lines on a piece of paper entangle, disrupt, and erase people's lives? Land surveyors in the 1850s worked in service to the United States to swiftly expand settler colonialism throughout California. These settlers inflicted a devastating genocide on the Indigenous peoples of these valleys, mountains, and coastlines. Entitlement, greed, and massive federal funding fueled this violent era. Maps gave the white settlers an all-seeing vision of access, domination, accumulation, and control. Their maps changed this place.
A distant ancestor of mine on my mother's side, John "Jack" Coffee Hays, a military leader during the U.S. Invasion of Mexico, followed the gold rush to California. Hays was one of the first U.S. settlers to purchase land from the Peraltas, a Spanish settler family who occupied Huchiun, the unceded land of the Lisjan Ohlone people, in present-day Oakland. In 1852, Hays became the U.S. Surveyor General of California. His maps are blueprints from the origin story of today's society, filled as it is with oppression, displacement, borders, and systemic white supremacy—where capital and property are valued above human life and the health of the land. In fact, he is celebrated by a local private fraternal organization, the “John Coffee Hays Club.” Their website reads: "Hays was an American icon who lived by, respected and honored the heritage of the American firearm. . .we have organized a club through which we, as free men, may unite: to address the responsibilities we have to defend, protect and promote our shared American heritage, American culture and The American Way."
My current work confronts this history's disturbing foundation for the present. I ask: how may I, as a descendant of settlers and uninvited guest on stolen land, condemn the violence, trauma, and destruction caused by my ancestors through my art practice? How may I invite others to reflect on our interconnected and unresolved histories to share visions for the future—a future that prioritizes the people who have lived in loving relationship with this land for thousands of generations? How can maps help us see the ways the present is shaped by the past, so that we may navigate into new and radical terrain?
Until the end of April, I will be exploring these issues through a performative and participatory installation at Dream Farm Commons. On the tall storefront windows, I am painting a map of Oakland. I invite you to consider the interwoven histories that have brought you onto this Lisjan Ohlone land known as Huchiun—consider your relationship with this land—and I invite you to imagine the futures possible here. Imagine the worlds you want to see. Imagine the future generations of Lisjan Ohlone here. Imagine tomorrow, imagine next year, imagine your children's grandchildren and Ohlone great-grandchildren walking these streets and hills and shorelines. Inside the gallery, a large scroll of canvas is draped from the balcony to the floor, woven through the banisters, and stretched across the space. Using soil harvested at the gravesite and former estate of "Jack" Coffee Hays, I am painting the canvas with imagery from historical maps that represents the story of the landscape, rather than the settlers' development. This map follows winding creeks to networks of wetlands, traces the veins of oak leaves, the patterns of roots and mycelium. Soil is layered on and washed away, leaves and branches cast backlit shadows when night falls, and mysteries are invited in to loosen the certainties of knowledge.
This work is unfinished. This work will never be finished. Generations into the future, I hope my descendants and their descendants find new ways to condemn and counteract the harms caused by me, my lineage, and by all of us who are benefitting from the injustices committed on this land. I hope this work opens doors for transformative conversations and sheds light on the vast landscape of our collective imagination.