River Whittle, lenapehoking / land back, 2021. Vinyl print. 12 x 28 feet. Image courtesy the artist


River Whittle renders the cityscape of what we now call Manhattan in deep blue and the stippled effect of half-tone newsprint. In bright red gothic-style script, the word “Lenapehoking”, the true name for the homeland of the Lenape People, is cut out of the city. The Lenape, the original inhabitants of this land, are also known as the Delaware, a name brought by European settler colonists, and who lived in the area surrounding the Delaware River and Hudson Valley River Sheds, including parts of present day Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. The second part of the title references the campaign to return governing power, as well as physical land, back to Indigenous people in their ancestral territories, which globally have been misappropriated and degraded by white colonizers.

The image’s starkness, the outmoded printing technique, and Gothic script evince the traumatic past of the Lenape diaspora—systematic genocide, forced relocation, and centuries of oppression. The landmass spotted by Europeans upon arrival, now tower-filled Lower Manhattan, is hazy and suggests the difficulty of seeing the past horrors revealed in the present. The amalgamation of time and land markers with the demand for “land back” highlights the artist’s instance that collective healing, land reparations, and historical reckoning are all deeply imbricated.

The artist first engaged with Socrates Sculpture Park by writing a text for Emily Johnson’s The Ways We Love and The Ways We Love Better – Monumental Movement Toward Being Future Being(s), performed at Socrates in September 2020. This missive conveys the grief and alienation of Indigenous displacement and the understanding of land as familial and animate.

Whittle writes: “What about our separation from our mother? That genderless matriarch who whispers their whims to us in our sleep? The first time I came home, I ran to the ocean, starving to float; be held by my Mama. Chemicals, waste. Let me drown with her because we are of flesh, the same. And sometimes it feels like we’ll be safer in the next life anyways, but these silly men can’t actually kill my mother. And one day, if they don’t stop, she will rise up, swallow them whole. I’ll go with her and live with her in new form.”

Audio Guide

Click below to listen to the artist speak about their work.

Audio transcript available upon request.