interview by BILL POWERS
all artwork courtesy of NATALIE BALL and HALE GALLERY
born and raised in a black neighborhood in portland, oregon, artist natalie ball relocated to her ancestral native american homeland to embrace a sustainable art practice and raise her three children, teaching them the art of stinta, an ancient word for love in her tribe’s language.
BILL POWERS — Where did your love of art come from?
NATALIE BALL — I was 21 and had just started college at the University of Oregon when I saw the video Couple in the Cage: Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West, by artists Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña, for their exhibition “The Year of the White Bear and Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West.” That’s when I fell in love with art and started focusing on making art.
BILL POWERS — Do you think that, culturally, there are different ideals among the Modoc or Klamath tribes in terms of how you view love through a familial, romantic, or even community lens?
NATALIE BALL — My tribe has its own language around love. My language is older than the English language. So, stinta, a word that means “love,” is what I chose to say when communicating ideas of love. Stinta is ancient, and so are its meanings. I’m still learning my language. With learning, there is inventing. My kids and I are building a new love language that’s inherently ancient.
BILL POWERS — I see so many posts on nature on your Instagram account. Is your love of the land something you specifically try to instill in your children, or just an extension of your daily life?
NATALIE BALL — The Klamath tribes were terminated by an act of Congress in 1953. My dad’s parents relocated to Portland, Oregon, soon after the termination. My mom’s family relocated here from a rural Black community in Arkansas. I grew up in Portland’s historic Black neighborhood within an active Native community. I am giving you my background to explain the stinta I am tracing, the stinta I am pulling from. We are all headed back to the land. It was a conscious decision to return to my ancestral homelands and raise my kids, to learn food sovereignty, and to create a studio practice. Accessing our homelands is an act of resistance, just like stinta, just like motherhood. If I can hold space for my kids to connect to their homeland, to experience joy, and to fall in love with it and their communities, then they will be the next generation to stinta and protect it.
BILL POWERS — The ultimate act of love is to make sacrifices for your kids. You recently donated one of your kidneys to your daughter.
NATALIE BALL — To give life, twice to my daughter has been a huge privilege. The year after I graduated from Yale, she went into kidney failure. I returned home to my family and started working full-time in the studio, with hopes of creating a sustainable studio practice. I started exhibiting my work — much of this was with you, with Half Gallery. That was an epic year, publicly and privately.
BILL POWERS — Some of the masks you make on metal spikes are a tribute to your ancestors. Can you tell us about that story from your origins?
NATALIE BALL — My ancestors are many: the ancient ones, the unborn, the rural south runners, the Modoc War’s hung and beheaded, the spectators, the Middle Passage survivors, the unsurvived, the mamas and aunties, the no-names, the babies, the soldiers, the imagined. My metal-spiked sculptures are the Pussy Hats. They were a play on that year’s Pussy Hat movement — a movement that I didn’t see myself in. It was a gesture to put forward narratives in sculpture form that I felt were excluded from that movement, within a nation that habitually erases my people and history.
BILL POWERS — I found your When I Go Missing so moving. It’s about the plight of Native American women who vanish in alarming numbers, right?
NATALIE BALL — Knowing the statistics as an Indigenous woman who is Black and Indian, I was thinking through the reality of being murdered or going missing. It is
a reality that is not if, but when. I created tools charged with material meaning to be used to find my way back home, and tools to be used to find me. MMIW, or Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, is yet another epidemic, but it’s not new. Black liberation is tied to Indigenous sovereignty, though not mutually exclusive. We need the Black Lives Matter movement — it’s a catalyst for real change, a collective shift of consciousness — for our epidemics to be visible and addressed.