The Great Lakes watershed— the world’s largest concentration of fresh water—spans two countries and eight states and has been the ancestral land of the Anishinaabe peoples since well before these borders were drawn. The term “watershed” refers to the geographical network of the Great Lakes basin—the five lakes (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior) and the rivers, streams, and reservoirs that feed into them. But it also signals a crucial turning point. Our region faces a host of crises brought on by the misuse of resources and by cultural, economic, and environmental discrimination, even as communities in the region mobilize to assert their rights, reclaim their histories, and protect their waterways from further degradation.
Watershed features fifteen contemporary artists who explore issues central to the Great Lakes region and its future, including several invited by UMMA to create new artwork for the exhibition. Some give voice to the experiences of those who are marginalized, particularly in Black and Indigenous communities, making personal and visceral the relationships among power, resources, and people. Many sound an alarm about the pervasive and lasting effects of corporate self-interest and extractive pollution, sometimes using the water and pollutants as materials in their art practice. Others reflect on water as a repository of memories and communal and personal histories, especially those tied to settler colonization of the watershed. All demonstrate how art can contribute to and shape current dialogues on the critical problems confronting our region.
In recognition of the Anishinaabeg—the original inhabitants of the Great Lakes watershed—the interpretation for this exhibition is presented in both Anishinaabemowin and English.
Jennifer M. Friess
Associate Curator of Photography
Lead support for this exhibition is provided by the U-M Office of the Provost, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Michigan Arts and Culture Council, Susan and Richard Gutow, and the U-M Institute for the Humanities. Additional generous support is provided by the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability, Graham Sustainability Institute, and the Department of English Language and Literature. Special thanks to Margaret Noodin and Michael Zimmerman, Jr. for translating the gallery texts into Anishinaabemowin.
The artists in this section call attention to some of the water crises facing Michigan, from the lack of equal access to safe water to the dangers of an aging infrastructure.
The Flint water crisis in particular—born from political corruption and man-made pollution—has drawn national attention to the disproportionate impact of pollution and climate change on African American and Indigenous populations, as well as to government indifference to these communities. Pipes that contaminated the water supply in Flint are still being replaced and the consequences of the disaster will continue to be felt for many years.
Meanwhile, Enbridge’s Line 5 petroleum pipeline, which runs beneath the Straits of Mackinac and across northeastern Michigan, looms as a large-scale threat to the Great Lakes region. To date, Line 5 is responsible for thirty-three spills that have poured 1.1 million gallons of crude oil into the Great Lakes and its watershed. It is the subject of myriad political battles, including the ongoing lawsuit filed by the State of Michigan to compel Enbridge to remove Line 5 from the Great Lakes, and the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa’s refusal to renew Enbridge’s easement (legal permission) to pass through their land.
Throughout the Great Lakes watershed, industrial pollution has devastated natural environments and caused severe physical harm to people in neighboring communities. Some artists in this section grapple with the decades-long legacies of corporate pollution at sites in the region. Others ask us to consider how our own consumption of goods contributes to the ecological degradation of the landscapes we inhabit.
In this section water is presented as a potent source of hope and transformation—as a force that sustains, protects, heals, and liberates. By considering how water acts as a repository of history, memory, and experiences for individuals and their communities, these artists visualize its powerful physical and symbolic effects on our bodies and the land.
Settlers of the Great Lakes watershed have a long history of violently displacing Indigenous people and exploiting the land’s natural resources. Artists in this section interrogate ongoing histories of colonization and their legacies in capitalism in order to confront the effects of the displacement of Indigenous communities, as well as the continued misuse of water and land.