The questions were not the usual fare, and the line up of speakers was eclectic. I was impressed that leading Native scholars Jolene Rickard and heather ahtone (Chickasaw-Choctaw) flew in for the event, from New York and Oklahoma respectively.
Keynote Address: Jolene Rickard, PhD (Tuscarora)
Jolene Rickard, Associate Professor and Director of the American Indian Program at Cornell University, gave the morning keynote address. Jolene has been traveling extensively and is developing an academic journal for Indigenous aesthetics. She stressed the increasingly global awareness of both Indigenous peoples and the art world. Colleges who sponsored hemispheric perspective, i.e. South and North American, towards Indigenous Americans found language translation to be the biggest challenge. An example she gave of the art world shifting away from Eurocentricism to globalism is the Venice Biennial steadily loosing its edge to the Asian biennials.
|Candice Hopkins and heather ahtone|
“Our knowledge is embodied,” says Jolene, discussion Indigenous governance. Objects contain information; knowledgeable people have to enactment this knowledge. “Wampum belts,” she points out, “are both political and aesthetic documents,” hinting at the greater meaner art can serve our communities today. She feels that the time between 1925 and 1977 for Native Americans is unexamined history—ripe for college students to research the copious photographic and written records.
John Mohawk (Seneca) popularized the term “autochthonic,” but Jolene wonders, “When did we start to use the term ‘sovereignty’?”
Jolene present beautiful images from the “gold wall” that she and Paul Chaat Smith (Comanche) co-curated, which became the most criticized inaugural exhibit at NMAI DC. These gold artifacts, decontextualized from their cultures, histories, and meanings, uncomfortably reference European lust for gold that resulted in so many murders and removals of Indian peoples. It was loosely arranged like the sun, the gold. Some Central Americas tribes use smelting gold to offer up prayers. Ironically, the display was also the most popular for posed photographs in social media.
She also shared images from Te Tihi, the gathering of Indigenous artists in Aotearoa (New Zealand). New Zealand has dual language laws; English, Māori and English are the official languages. She realized during her trip that hosting protocols required gifting. Her travels have been inspiration; however, she noted that it is getting more challenging in the US to find funds for travel. The Ford Foundation and Hemispheric Institute fund travel, but typically, Canada is more willing to assist artists in traveling. Reaching her conclusion, Jolene mused, “It’s easier for people to think about the end of the world than it is to think about the end of capitalism.” The current state of affairs reveals, “Just how dangerous we are as Indigenous people.” As a final thought, she stated, “If Indigenous artists don’t feel they need to know our history, they are missing a major opportunity.” The floor was opened to questions, and a woman asked Jolene if globalization meant cultural genocide. Jolene responded that in international law “Human rights” trump “Indigenous rights.” Working with Africa she learned that the people there don’t want to label groups in Africa as “Indigenous” due to the term’s baggage. Instead they are exploring “community-based knowledge” in Africa. Another question led Jolene to observed that, “Most people don’t have the privilege of living with their community. Traditions are anchored in place. Theory is meant to be transportable.” She sees art as experiments that create dialogue. “Creativity now is at the heart of it,” Jolene say, not law, which is usually celebrated in Native American studies programs. For our morning panel, moderated by Charles Rencountre, was supposed to “discuss the concept of a manifesto that describes the policies, goals, opinions and potential of a new contemporary Native American Arts movement.”
* “Deskaheh's trip to the League of Nations in 1923-24 nonetheless marks the first attempt by North American First Nations to take their claims for sovereignty to an international forum,” writes Donald B. Smith in Deskaheh’s entry in The Dictionary of Canadian Biography.
Morning Panel: Indigenous Art ManifestoAmerica Meredith (Cherokee Nation)
The questions I was asked were:
- Is it time for a Native American Arts Manifesto?
- Are their unnamed signs of this already happening that you see?
- Do you think that we are ready to organize and rename what is and who we are as artists collectively?
Another perspective is that Feminist Art ended the modern era in art, by radically changing the scope of art world to include previously marginalized groups—women, the GLBTQI communities, people of color—basically the majority of the planet. Our new pluralistic, global art world is confusing but a more honest reflection of humanity. Feminist artists entered the art world with their own values, and Native artists should also actively participate in the global art world with their values intact.
“Art for art’s sake” is a Northern European concept, put forth during the Enlightenment notably by German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Native American peoples never collectively ascribed to this separation of art from daily or ceremonial life. While the term “holistic” is worn threadbare by overuse, it is an apt description to an Indigenous approach to art. I suggested “integrated” might be a good alternative phrase.
To the question of “What is Indian art,” I believe T. C. Cannon and IAIA answered that back in the 1960s: “Indian art is art made by an Indian.” The next question would be, “What is an Indian?” My working definition of an Indigenous American is a person with Indigenous American ancestors who is recognized as Indigenous by their community.
Using the example of the Pan-American Indian Humanities Center, all the wisdom is at the tribal level—it’s encased in our own tribal languages: worldview, philosophy, logic, diplomatics. Our tribes ground us in the free-for-all contemporary art world.
Basically I don’t believe we can speak for all Indigenous American artists. We need a common forum so that artists can speak for themselves, and we can then identify common causes and concerns. Not everyone can attend art school, Native conferences, or every major Native art show. So to foster wider understanding and dialogue, we should turn to writing, to provide a lasting record of our art and thinking. By writing down information and sharing it widely, we can stop repeating the same conversations. To this end I founded First American Art Magazine.
Stephen Wall (White Earth Ojibwe-Seneca)
Steve Wall is the Chair of the Indigenous Liberal Studies Department, an artist, and a former tribal judge. Addressing the question, “Are you an Indian or an artist first,” Wall says he is an “artist first,” because we are born as artists or “creative animals.” He is concerned about ghettoization that “Indian art is put off in the corner.” There is tension between the local and the global. The marketplace tends to ask the questions. To achieve recognition as an artist, one typical has to engage the art market, which is a capitalist system. The Western Mind is reductivist; the world is categorized. Steve succinctly pointed out that the distinction between so-called “fine art” and “craft” is that of class divisions. Wealthy European and later European American men could create “fine art;” poor people made “craft.” This carries over to colonialism, in which the “mother country” believes the colonized has nothing to offer it. Cultural is a one-way movement from the civilized mother country to the uncivilized colony. As recently as 2007, Steve was told that, “There is no such thing as American art history,” since the United States was a colony of England and “American art history” would only be a subset of European art history.
“The marketplace is based on Native absence,” he said; the “terminal creed” that Natives are all going to disappear and the privileging of historical art over contemporary art.” He pointed out the completely arbitrary and widespread practice of museums combining “Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.” Steve does support a Native artists’ manifesto, which would be, “Our art will reflect an Indigenous presence.”
Tony Abeyta (Navajo)
Tony earned by MFA from New York University and was asked to define “success.” He feels artists are all distinct individuals. He listed influential role models, including Allan Houser, who he had as a young student in Santa Fe. His father Narciso Abeyta, a Studio-style artist, and his contemporaries built the momentum in expanding the Native art world into what we have today. He talks to younger artists and feels they are in a defensive mode, which a focus on rejecting stereotypes and the identities the non-Native world places upon them. Watching the marketplace, he’s noticed that Latin American art has exploded in value on the secondary market and wonders why Native American art has not? Tony said ultimately he didn’t care about how he was defined; he was focused on making art.
Jim Rivera (Pascua Yaqui)
Jim, a painter and comic artist, was asked, “How do you shed the identities that don’t fit?” He relayed how as a child in Arizona he was placed in special education programs because he spoke his tribal language. In graduate school, a classmate asked, “Are you Native American? Well, you don’t look like one. […] Well, you have all this material to use,” such as suicide on reservations and a string of other stereotypes. So Jim asked that classmate, “Are you American?” Then why don’t you paint about worshiping the dollar, and other American stereotypes? Then student said, he just wanted to do his art. And Jim pointed out that he did as well. In one series, he painted his grandmother at boarding school, then later in life.
He described a series of portraits of his grandmother: how she appeared in boarding school photos and she wanted to appear on her own terms. Jim’s teachers asked why in her self-representational piece, he had put his grandmother’s painted canvas on rectangular stretcher bards. That was simply the way he had been taught to present paintings, but when he removed the canvas and hung it without the bars, the piece was liberated. He also described a performance piece in which he placed mask after mask on his face, but they kept falling off.
“I want you guys to have your voice,” is what Jim says to emerging artists. “You don’t have to ask permission anymore.”
Alicia Marie Rencountre-Da Silva (Muisca descent)
“What is Native American contemporary art?” asked recent IAIA alumna Alicia Rencountre-Da Silva. She feels it must be, “Inclusive.” She was required to take Western art history, after taking several classes in Native American art history. She noticed the deliberate influencing by non-Natives upon Natives in the arts—“40 years of patronizing influence on the arts” during the mid-20th century. This pattern was broken by artists such as Oscar Howe, who demanded the right to create their own art.
When the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) was proposed, 184 countries signed on immediately, while the United States, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada were the last four to sign.
Alicia is focused on where “Art meets life,” which includes the iconic photographic that Ossie Michelin took with his cell phone of Amanda Polchies and holding up a eagle feather before a solid blue wall of RCMP at a Mi’kmaq anti-fracking demonstrations in Elsipogtog, New Brunswick.
Washington, DC-based artist Gregg Deal (Pyramid Lake Paiute) made Michelin’s photograph into a popular anti-fracking poster. Alicia also shared Gregg’s anticolonialism mural, comparing colonialism to a can of spray paint. She shared images of Ponca people planting sacred corn in the pathway of the Keystone pipeline in Nebraska, and discussed Honor the Treaties and the Cowboy Indian Alliance as examples of cross-cultural collaboration. Alicia was also inspired by We Honor: The Art of Activism, an exhibit curated by Nani Chacon.
In the discussion that followed, Charles Rencountre suggested, “Native American art is the mainstream.” An question from the audience followed up with the notion of being “an Indian” or “an artist” first. Jim said, “You are Native no matter what.” Steve suggested that “transcendence” was a more useful term “integration” and said, “The marketplace will define you.” I suggested these artificial binaries (fine art/craft, Indian/artist, contemporary/traditional) stem from the fact that we are conversing in English, which has in intrinsic logic based on paired opposites, as the physician and author Edward de Bono suggests. Whenever someone presents you with a dilemma, search for alternatives. As an artists, Charles Rencountre pointed out that with his surname, he could easily pass as French. “We’re humans first,” said Charles, and he pointed out that if one’s CDIB says they are ¼ Indian, then they are ¾ something else, and shouldn’t that side be important as well?
A man in the audience asked about spirituality. Tony responded that a universal force was involved in art making; that some might call “the muse.” I pointed out that some Native American artists are atheists and their perspective should be respected. Charles relayed how he used to carve pipes out of pipestone for sale, until he learned much more about the sacred nature of pipestone, and realized he could sculpt other things out of other materials and that would be acceptable.
Afternoon Panel: Creativity Is (Still) Our TraditionCandice Hopkins (Carcross-Tagish)
Candice Hopkins is currently serving as the interim chief curator at the MoCNA. She discussed wanting to activate the space between the terms “creativity” and “tradition.” She shared the work of Brian Jungen, also from Port St. John, British Columbia, like herself. He sculptures out of commercially available goods are “speculative, deliberately opened-ended.” He constructed 20- to 40-foot long whale skeletons from Monobloc chairs. The plastic in the lawn chairs is a petroleum product. His work in Sakahàn, which Candice co-curated, consisted of orange plastic gas cans—ubiquitous in his region—punched with patterns from small holes to resemble beadwork designs of local poisonous plants and venomous insects. She see art as a potential mediator between cultures.
heather ahtone (Chickasaw-Choctaw)
heather ahtone, Assistant Curator of Native American and Non-Western Art for the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, earned her BFA from IAIA and MFA from OU. Since first publishing her interdisciplinary methodology of critiquing Native art from a Native perspective in 2009, heather has refined it. Now she identifies for key factions of assessing Indigenous art:
heather then shared Southeastern basketry patterns, which also share a symbolic language, much of which she learned from Ollin Williams (Choctaw).. The diamond and cross pattern on Choctaw basket references stickball. Eastern Band Cherokee weaver Nancy Bradley’s 1941 rivercane burden basket displays a fylfot, which heather interprets as a whirlwind. “Baskets are stories,” said heather. Shan Goshorn (Eastern Band Cherokee) creates double-woven paper baskets. In her Educational Genocide, she is “literately deconstructing history and reweaving it.” From 1879–1918, 12,000 American Indian children from 140 tribes attended Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. Shan incorporated their photos and signatures in her basket. heather also show the work of Gail Tremblay (Mi’kmaq-Onondaga) and Sarah Sense (Chitimacha-Choctaw) as further examples of living artists pushing forward the language of Eastern Woodland basketry.
Nani Chacon, originally from Chinle now in Albuquerque, first started painting at age 16 as a graffiti artist. “My interest in art came from a very urban experience.” She said representational figurative painting as “classical” and is “technically challenged by the figure;” however she wants her figurative subjects to tell as deeper story.
Her painting The Origin overlays a Navajo basket design with a woman. Although she had the design pictured in her head, she couldn’t grid out the painting. Finally she began painting from the center of the basket, known as the “origin” and spiraled outward. “It all finally worked,” and reinforced the metaphors of the basket—a common origin that binds people together.
This series of Navajo women and textile designs explores Navajo philosophy “and how much it is not about the past.” Nani said. Her 100-foot-long mural, She Taught Us to Weave, in Albuquerque shows Spiderwoman, who taught Navajo people how to weave. A raven represents “cunning behavior.” The whole mural addresses issues of new technologies and how we will use them. The word “hózhó” appears in the mural and is broadcast via radio frequencies—the question being will we choose to use new technologies in a way that incorporates hózhó—beauty, balance, and harmony?
“I know our ancestors did not create these philosophies to be relics,” Nani said. “They are maps and guides to the future.”
Her grandmother was a weaver, and Navajo “rugs speak to the region they come from.” Likewise, Nani makes all her mural site-specific. For the Allan Houser sculpture garden at the MoCNA, she was inspired by the sand and painted Manifestations of the Glittering World, which shows a woman emerging form the sand and letting sand stream out of her hand. Glass is made from sand. In the glittering word, our world, “We live in the world of lights. We live in the world of glass.” The strep-fret represents mountains, the cross-symbols works on innumerable levels—stars, four directions, the Christian cross, rifle-scopes. “I loved the cross pattern because it’s so loaded,” she says. “It is a symbol to divide.”
At the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Arizona, Nani painted Against the Storm She Gathers Her Thoughts. The storm pattern is in the rug designs, and hair is the extension of thoughts, so tying up hair composes thoughts.
Teri Greeves (Kiowa-Comanche-Italian)
Teri Greeves learned how to bead in her mother’s trading post on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. To her, beadwork is a “vehicle to speak.” In her first Indian Market, beadwork didn’t have its own category, so Teri entered her beaded shoes as sculpture. Later she entered in the “diverse arts” category. “I don’t feel limited by an object," she said. When people ask her what she does, “The first answer I always give is, ‘I’m a beadworker.' " People are typically confused, then she identifies herself as an artist, for which they have a context. “The media and materials I use are valid means of expression.” She creates pictorial narrative work, which traditional Plains men do. She’s also inspired by hand-illuminated manuscripts and the notion of a visual language. Teri shared images of her work, including of the Sun Boys, immortals born of the Sun and a human woman.
In 2006 during the Iraq War, she was asking herself, “Why?’’ She created Prayer Blanket, which explored the Kiowas’ identity as a military people. “I’m a maker and I need to create with my hands—that’s how I process,” she said. Two soldiers are accompanied by dancers, who are escorting them to the Milky Way, “where our dead go.” The piece is divided in the sky world and earth world. The deerhide had scars and even bloodstains, but instead of hiding these, Teri incorporated them into the artwork.
To address the outside world’s debate between “fine art” and “craft,” Teri beaded NDN Art in 2008, a stereotypical Native man with a Fauvist palette and a word balloon proclaiming the piece, “Art.”
“Are you an Indian or are you an artist?” Teri answers, “I’m both. I cannot not be Indian. Just like I cannot not be Italian. I cannot not be the whole of my being.”
Trying a new direction in 2011, Teri created large scale beadwork appliqués on silk and vinyl that resembled mosaics. She beaded with four to six millimeter Czech cut glass and crystal pony beads. A major collector responded to the new work: “I couldn’t believe you used such big beads.” The collector simply couldn’t see the content.
One of these works was Wa-ho: The First Song After the Flood, of a woman singing an old lullaby to her baby. Teri framed the mother and child in an arch to reference the Christian Madonna and child. “Beads are not Indian,” Teri acknowledged, “but it doesn’t matter because we made them Indian.”
Abstraction was a major breakthrough in American Modernist art; however, the American Modernists were inspired by Indigenous artists, and Abstract, geometric designs are the domain of women. “Abstraction in American came from Indian women,” Teri stated.
Jason Garcia (Santa Clara Pueblo)
Jason Garcia, whose name Okuu Pin means “Turtle Mountain,” first shared his many artistic inspirations. “My art is inspired by my own participation in Santa Clara dances,” he says, which include deer dances and dances at the August feast of St. Clare of Assisi, who happens to be the patron saint of television. Jason shared his inspirations, which included Santa Clara polychrome, which his pueblo was known for prior to its blackware, and comics, such as Joe Kubert of DC comics and the Hernandez brothers’ Love and Rockets. Pablita Velarde, the Santa Clara pueblo painter, was also a genre painter, and Jason pointed out specific details in her work that speak to daily life in the pueblo. Potters who have influenced him include his grandmother Severa Tafoya and his aunt Lois Gutierrez.
In 2002 Jason made his first graphic tile. His series Tewa Tales of Suspense with images from the Pueblo Revolution. One deals with the revolutions that continued through 1696. These comic book cover-inspired artworks are a way Jason teaches children and the rest of the public about the history of his people. For examples, Tanos (the Hopi-Tewa) were hired as mercenaries by the Hopi, since the Hopi were peaceful people.
One of Garcia’s Tewa Tales of Suspense shows an image of a woman warrior. A Hopi katsina portrays a woman with her hair half-done, remembering Tano woman warriors, interrupted in their daily activities to fight against an attacking army. Garcia’s Corn Maiden series shows young Pueblo women using technology or thinking of corporate logos. He’s interested in the “maker’s mark,” the artist’s hand on the work, inspired by the centuries-old potsherds he’s found that still have the artist’s fingerprints embedded in the clay. At graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Garcia was inspired by Bucky Badger, since the badger is also an important animal to Pueblo people. In school, he has been experimenting more with printmaking techniques, such as aquatint and etching.
Layli Longsoldier (Oglala Lakota)
Layli Longsoldier lives in Tsaile, Arizona, and teaches at Diné College. She earned her MFA from Bard College in New York. She primarily writes but sometimes creates visual art as well. Her father Daniel Longsoldier, an alumnus of IAIA, attended school with Joy Harjo back in 1968. The Longsoldiers are from Pine Ridge. Growing up, she wished her father was “more adventurous with his painting” but came to understand, through his attention to tribally-specific regalia and other details, “When people see his work, it reinforces something of themselves.” One of her installation involves a herd of buffalo made from wire mesh. “We still understand ourselves as buffalo people.” She studied book arts at the University of Wisconsin. After President Obama very quietly signed an apology to Native American peoples in 2009—on a weekend with no tribal leaders present and with two disclaimers—Longsoldier wrote a cycle of 29 poems responding to this “apology.” Wanting to hear the communities’ perspective, she co-curated an art show at the Red Cloud Heritage Center, Whereas We Respond with Mary Bordeaux (Sicangu Lakota). Copies of the government’s resolution were distributed and visitors draw their responses on the walls of the Heritage Center. Afterward the community came and whitewashed the exhibit. She shared a poem inspired by her desire to transmit her culture to her daughter.
Diane R. Karp—Closing Remarks
Diane Karp, Executive Director of the Santa Fe Art Institute and former Director of New Observations Magazine shared a synopsis of the discussion and closing remarks. She wondered if the same questions linger due to insecurity on the part of individual artists or the Native art community. She mentioned how the feminist movement shifted the maxim, “The political is personal” to “The personal is political.” The floor was open to comments. I asked Teri Greeves if the audience at Crystal Bridges commented on her tribal heritage. She said, no—State of the Art features “people of all genders and all ethnicities. [The artists’ ethnicities] were a part of the conversation by our presence.” Teri concluded, “While I keep an audience in mind, I want to speak to human beings.”
Jolene mentioned how Steve McQueen, a black British filmmaker famous for 12 Years a Slave, produced Hunger, a film about Irish prison hunger strike. While one would hope the critics and the public would view the content and not focus on the producer’s cultural background, yet Jolene suggests artists view that “less of an imposition and more of a strength. Our deep history is part of the discussions.” Charles Rencountre brought up the idea of a manifesto, asking, “Should artists come together to organize and have a voice?” Jolene discussed Atlatl, who had their first exhibition in 1981 and organized Who Stole the Tee Pee? in 2000. “The US is behind” other countries in the Americas in representing their Indigenous artists, pointed out Stephen Wall. A discussion of the relation between the local and international ensured. Jolene Rickard pointed out that success art uses the local as an entry point but has a power that “transcends as connects to a larger audience.” She asks if there are “discrete Indigenous aesthetics” and feels it is good to “let people struggle to understand the symbolism in our art.”
“Shedding Skins” felt difference that the usual museum artists’ talk. The Rencoutres seemed genuinely curious about the panelists’ views. An estimated 60 to 100 people came and went throughout the day, a good turnout considering how early on a Saturday the symposium started. People felt comfortable in speaking honestly and directly and even disagreeing at points. Such free dialogue is rare. There was collective agreement that many conversation-killing questions or phrases needed to put to rest. When conversation turned towards how to disseminate information more broadly to me the answer seems obvious—write it down in a public forum, hence my posting these notes online. Only so many people attend Native art conferences and only so many people attend museum talks. To move the conservation forward, we need to record what we say and share it. Maybe only so many people have a genuine interest in issues surrounding Native American art, but these people can’t be at all places at all times, so we need written forums—online and in print.
Instead of trying to speak for Native American artists, we should let the artists and art writers share their ideas freely. We need more raw material from which to glean the shared undercurrents of thought. We need a record of our thoughts that can be reexamined years later. We need to record, interpret, contextualize, and disseminate the Native American thinking of our times. The necessary link in moving this dialogue forward is Indigenous art writers!