Just before the beginning of fall break, Cornell students trekking up the northeast side of the slope were greeted with a surprise: three logs had been bolted together and laid across the walkway.
These logs — a part of a Cornell-approved temporary art installation by Bushra Aumir ’22 called “Routes” — remained on the slope from Oct. 6-11. Aumir said the project was inspired by the U.S. government’s 1960 seizure of the Ohi: yo’ Territory, inhabited by the Seneca Nation of Indians, in order to break ground on the Kinzua Dam in Pittsburgh.
She began the project as a part of Art 3499: Sculpture as a Platform for Advocacy in the Public, and decided to take it beyond the scope of the class.
On the first day of the installation there was no signage — the logs were present without any written explanation in order to stoke curiosity among those that encountered the installation.
“I wanted people to be curious and wonder why they were being blocked. How it played out in my story was, people got mad/angry that their path was blocked. It resulted in a strong emotional response,” Aumir said in an email to The Sun. “So when they found out ‘why’ in the next few days they were able to critique it. It made them think about how it feels to be blocked and to have their path taken away.”
On the third day, Aumir said, she attached a QR code leading to the project’s website next to the installation. On the fourth, which coincided with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, she displayed a sign explaining her intentions.
Aumir said she chose not to display explanatory signage until the third and fourth days because she wanted passersby to first experience the feeling of having their path blocked, similar to the way in which the roads of the Seneca Nation were flooded by the Kinzua Dam construction.
Aumir said that this tragedy, though physically and temporally removed from Cornell, is relevant because of Cornell’s status as a land-grant institution built on seized Indigenous land. The Kinzua Dam was intended to protect Pittsburgh from flooding and pollution, but the construction led to the flooding and destruction of Seneca land, forcing its people to relocate. The traditional Seneca Nation lands are located about 160 miles southwest of Cornell.
“I think the sentiment of being forced out of their land is the same, whether it be Cornell being a land-grant university and the land is essentially taken to build a university, or the land is taken to help Pittsburgh not have floods anymore,” Aumir said. “Natives have been giving up a lot of their resources or have been forced to give up a lot of their resources in the name of progress.”
Aumir, who is not Native but collaborated with Indigenous faculty members and the Seneca Iroquois National Museum, sees blocking the path as an allegory for the U.S. government’s flooding, destruction and reduction of Seneca land.
“I thought that was the perfect way to get the sentiment across that you’ve worked so hard and you’ve come up all the way, and then there’s a block,” Aumir said. “What I’m saying is that the path is for the Cornell community — you can use the path — but I’m just going to block it.”
Some students were indeed confused by the lack of signage.
“I feel like the art kind of speaks for itself. It’s open for interpretation, but I guess it was a bit more confusing not having any context for what it was,” said Raena Prude ’23.
On the project’s fourth day, Aumir said that the installation was even moved without authorization by an unknown individual so that it no longer blocked the path, and the QR code and signage were stolen. To Aumir, this frustration was a main goal of her project.
“I’m sure there was some sort of feeling they got by being blocked. It’s like instantaneously, if you are approaching your path and someone’s blocked it, it brings up a feeling,” Aumir said. “It brought those uncomfortable feelings out like, ‘Why is someone taking my path, why do I have to deal with this?’ You can’t compare what we felt to what the Natives felt at all. But even if this tiny block makes you so infuriated that you had to move it, imagine the immense sort of grief that these [Natives] feel.”