Artist Louis Chinn shares plans for ‘The Living Basket’ memorial commemorating Muwekma Ohlone Tribe’s past, present and future

Artist Louis Chinn in front of a PowerPoint slide showing the planned "Living Basket" art installation at Chabot College on Nov. 15. The piece will memorialize the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe's past, present and future, and is set to be installed at Hayward's Heritage Plaza early next year. (Sonia Waraich - East Bay Echo)

HAYWARD, Calif. — The United States has a problematic history of memorializing people and events that glorify domination, colonialism and imperialism, like statues of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and missionary Junipero Serra. The Muwekma Ohlone Tribe is working with the city of Hayward to change that.

During a talk at Chabot College on Wednesday, Nov. 15, multidisciplinary artist Louis Chinn shared a rendering of “The Living Basket,” which is going to commemorate the past, present and future of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe at the Heritage Plaza in downtown Hayward. Chinn said he thought the project would be an exciting challenge because it called for activating both memory and imagination in remembering the tribe’s past, honoring its present and envisioning its future.

“The basket will appear as a monolithic, powerful and permanent structure,” Chinn told an audience of dozens. “This is communicating that the Ohlone Tribe is here to stay.”

The 10-foot-by-16-foot immersive sculpture is based on traditional Muwekma Ohlone basketry and is intended to be a tranquil space. The outside of the basket is expected to be colored with natural earth-pigmented stucco and adorned with Olivella shell beads. The inside of the basket will be inscribed with a land acknowledgement, along with housing a library of native plants that are culturally significant to the tribe.

The city of Hayward initially planned to incorporate the El Camino Real bell, which was across the street from the old Hayward City Hall, into the renovation of the Heritage Plaza. There are several mission bells across the state memorializing El Camino Real, or the Royal Road, which connected the state’s almost two dozen missions.

Veronica Martinez, an enrolled member of the neighboring Amah Mutsun tribe who is a communications professor and the co-coordinator of the Indigenous Peoples Education Association at Chabot College, said she and others approached the city of Hayward to remove that sculpture because of its problematic legacy of memorializing the mission system, which subjugated and brutalized California’s Indigenous people.

A committee was formed to figure out what kind of public art to put in place of the mission bell and which artist would be the best person to create it. The committee selected Chinn, an avant-garde artist originally from Alaska who aims to dissolve the boundaries between traditional artforms and create immersive sensory experiences in public spaces, ensuring everyone can access and enjoy his work.

Juan Pablo Mercado, a history professor at Chabot College whose research focuses on public art, told the audience that “sites of public memory have significant influence on how we understand and often misunderstand this country, its history and our place within that history.”

The collaboration between the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe and Chinn is a way of intervening to disrupt traditional narratives, help the community shake off its collective historical amnesia and reimagine history from the perspective of the marginalized, Mercado said.

Members of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, including Vice Chairwoman Monica V. Arellano and former Councilwoman Gloria E. Gomez, said the tribe loves the project, appreciates the collaborative approach that was taken, and is looking forward to celebrating there once the basket is installed, likely in early 2024.

“This is a very special project in a very special area,” Gomez said, “and we’re just excited about it.”

Sonia Waraich can be reached at 510-952-7455.

Photo caption: Artist Louis Chinn describes the planned “Living Basket” art installation in front of a PowerPoint slide depicting the memorial at Chabot College on Wednesday, Nov. 15. The piece will commemorate the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe’s past, present and future in the region, and is set to be installed at Hayward’s Heritage Plaza early next year. (Sonia Waraich – East Bay Echo)

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