DECONTIE & BROWN
PIVOT FROM JEWELRY AND FASHION TO PERFORMANCE ART
BY NEEBINNAUKZHIK SOUTHALL (CHIPPEWAS OF RAMA FIRST NATION)
Santa Fe New Mexican
DECONTIE & BROWN, the brand of the Maine-based married couple Donna Decontie-Brown (Penobscot Nation/Kitigan Zibi First Nation) and Jason K. Brown (Penobscot Nation), announced a major shift in their work this past February: Decontie & Brown, which was known for creating high-end jewelry and experimental fashion rooted in Wabanaki stories and material culture, would no longer be focusing on jewelry or participating in art markets. With Donna's continued involvement and support, Jason would instead now concentrate on music and performance art as Firefly, a name gifted him. While this change seemed sudden, it was founded on years of creative experimentation. “Decontie & Brown started with jewelry,” explained Brown, who learned lapidary work from famed Navajo/Hopi jeweler Jesse Monongya, following a chance meeting at Brown's first Indian Market. “The jewelry inspired us to design fashion that went with the jewelry, right? So I'm doing fashion shows. We had the need for runway music, so I always sang traditionally. I learned from a tribal elder who's not with us anymore. About 10 years ago, I apprenticed with him for seven months, so he taught me all of the songs. “I wanted to create something for the runway on those multiple levels that went with what you were actually seeing, and that's [when] I got an iPhone and found GarageBand and started making music. . . . Everything kind of culminated. And then COVID hit, right? That just kind of changed everything, and all the [fashion and] jewelry shows stopped, and everybody was stuck inside. . . . In our community, we couldn't gather and I couldn't sing. You couldn't get together and do hand drumming and stuff with people, so I decided to do a ‘live.' I did my first traditional singing live in April 2020, and by November 2020 I was doing a Kennedy Center performance.” Firefly said he would soon embark on several performances in Maine and around the country. One is a collaboration with a choir and the Bangor Symphony Orchestra on an original piece of Wabanaki music, to be performed at the University of Maine's Collins Center for the Arts. Last year Brown opened SWAIA's Indigenous Fashion Show with an energetic surprise performance, accompanied by three models wearing matching fringed Decontie & Brown outfits. Attendee and filmmaker Razelle Benally, dazzled by Brown's sleeveless coat of mirrors, exclaimed, “He's like the Native Liberace!” Firefly brings a distinctive personal style to his performances and everyday life, and he encourages others who want to dress daringly. This fearlessness is evident in his music, which ranges from haunting drumming and soulful chants to playful electronic dance beats and distorted vocals. In 2020 Firefly released his debut album, Sacred Fire, followed by several singles. Ancestral cultural and place-based references are layered in the songs, performances and videos, which frequently present unique, otherworldly visions that feel both deeply rooted and futuristic. The audio features “ancient frequencies and sounds and notes that our ancestors handed down,” Brown said. “And then with the visuals, there's healing power in the vibration of color, so I use a lot of color.” Performances anchored with spirit, hard work and intention Destination Turtle Island, produced for the 2021 Digital Abbe Museum Indian Market, opens with a spoken word piece about how Firefly's people come from the stars. (Star People are described in the stories of several northeastern tribes.) The visuals include a prismatic bird, a floating city and a snow owllike character. A lighted cube launches into space from the city and undertakes a journey to earth. Images of ancestors are also in the presentation. Firefly performs several songs, at times with a black drum, while Decontie-Brown accompanies him as a fancy shawl dancer on a stage bathed in colorful lights. Firefly's New Moon performance features live projection mapping on an old pine forest, with smoke weaving between the trees. Sugar Island showcases an original synthesizer and piano composition and footage of nature, a birch bark wigwam and nets on the island, which is part of Penobscot Nation territory. In one scene, Brown sits in a canoe and interacts with digitally projected water while wearing a Wabanaki hunter's cap, with two peaks akin to an animal's ears. To create this video, Brown spent eight hours “climbing in and out of the canoe all night long. Finally, like at five in the morning, I nailed it.” Wabanavia, a short film formerly on view at the Portland Museum of Art, is scheduled to open at Iceland's Reykjavik Art Museum in the fall. The film honors both sides of Brown's heritage — Wabanaki and Scandinavian — and expresses parallels in these cultures. “I'm not only Wabanaki Native American but Swedish too, and [I'm] learning how Viking culture and legend and Wabanaki culture and legend are incredibly similar.” The audio is a traditional Wabanaki greeting song shifted into a Scandinavian note scale. Brown cited kulning, “a whole system of communication in Scandinavia where they would sing through the woods to each other” and “call their animals.” He worked three months straight to create Wabanavia, which “unfolded as it went” in his mind, all without storyboards. The work opens with a scene of bright fireflies in the night. Elaborate sets include forests, moose and reindeer, a canoe floating in a river of digitally projected water, a fence with photos of ancestors — and Prince — and so much more. In one scene, Decontie-Brown performs as a richly dressed medicine woman weaving a basket in the attic of their house. The scenes were shot in-camera and edited in Adobe Premiere. Limited added effects include text, snow and a green-screened scene where Firefly enters a doorway in a mountain passageway. Those who have followed Decontie & Brown's work may be surprised by the amount of set building in several of Firefly's videos. For many years, Brown worked for companies doing marketing, branding, websites, product design and trade shows — a wealth of experience that he is now applying to his own projects. Led by a “mental state of love,” Firefly credits the success of Decontie & Brown's creative pivot to three specific things: “One part is being in touch with spirit, and following signs and guidance. The next part is working really hard, and the third part is setting your intention and keeping your focus on that intention.” “I grew up in our Penobscot culture — our Wabanaki culture — and grew up hearing stories and songs,” shared Brown. “I got a lot of knowledge from my great-grandmother, who was born in the late 1800s, so I was lucky enough to be able to spend time with her [when I was] a child. And she told me about so many things. I think it really sparked my wanting to know more and dig deeper and learn more about our people and our stories and our history and our legends, and ‘How does that relate to today?' . . . So I'm just doing what everybody that came before me did. I'm doing exactly what they did, but I'm doing it within the context of the world that I live in today. “I feel like every generation puts their own flavor on their culture and then hands it forward, and so it's an evolving thing too. We as Native people practice culture and songs and traditions that are thousands of years old. We're very, very fortunate, and it's such an honor to have that. But I think that all of that culture has a life of its own, and so it's grown and it's evolved and it's changed, as we have. So that's what I love about it. That's what I totally love about it.” Neebinnaukzhik Southall (Chippewas of Rama First Nation) is a graphic designer, artist, photographer and writer based in Santa Fe, where they run their small creative business, Neebin Studios (www. neebin.com). Neebin is driven to uplift diverse Native communities through their work.