Looking Back to Look Forward
Polly Nordstrand (Hopi-Norwegian)
Polly Nordstrand examines Native art writing published since 1990 as a means of assessing progress in Native art. She begins with Lucy Lippard’s 1990, Mixed Blessings: New Art in a Multicultural America, which looks at Asian-, African-, and Latin American art, as well as Native American art. It stands out because it is not a catalog and covers contemporary and experimental Native artists that have been underrepresented.
Since Native art is left out of mainstream art history texts, exhibit catalogs are particularly important. Rennard Strickland and Margaret Archuleta’s 1993 Shared Visions: Native American Painters and Sculptors in the Twentieth Century is a catalog accompanying a major exhibit responding to the quincentennial of Columbus’ arrival in the American. Strickland and Archuleta voice the desire for Native artists to achieve visibility, an ongoing sentiment, echoed in David W. Penney’s 2004 North American Indian Art. Shared Visions traces the influence of federal Indian policy on 20th century Native arts, and Nordstrand feels this casts the artists in the role of the victim (146). She wonders if survival narratives are compelling or relevant to mainstream society.
In the 2002 After the Storm: The Eiteljorg Fellowship for Native American Fine Art, 2001, edited by Jackson Rushing, writer Colleen Cutschall (Oglala Lakota) compares cross-cultural communication in art as aboriginal multi-lingualism” (151).
Nordstrand points out the lack of critical review of Native American art by the art world, but looks at one art magazine with an issue dedicated to Native art: the 1992 volume of Art Journal Vol. 51 (1992) No. 3 (Fall), co-edited by Jackson Rushing and Kay WalkingStick (Cherokee/Winnebago). The lack of art criticism and lack of judgments is a widespread problem that exists throughout the art world. Nancy Mithlo (Chiricahua Apache) writes, “the purpose of contemporary Native arts criticism in a more proactive frame of reference is less about what others think (getting in and being witnessed by others as in a ceremony) and more about what we thinking of ourselves in relationship with others” (152).
Since catalogs are geared towards a general readership, Nordstrom argues that they are no substitute for scholarly art history. She criticizes Janet Berlo and Ruth Phillips’ 1998 Native North American Art for bending interpretations of art terminology, specific the term “modern,” in respect to Native art.
She mentions the catalog for the 2004 National Museum of the American Indian exhibit, Native Modernisms: The Art of George Morrison and Allan Houser, edited by Truman Lowe, 2005. Finally looking at Linda B. Eaton’s 1990 A Separate Vision: Case Studies of Four Contemporary Indian Artists, Nordstrand asks, “Can we identify true movements and aesthetics in history of art by American Indians?” (156).
The last two decades have seen a groundswell of books about Native art, including an increasing number of monographs. More Native writers are publishing and some tribes and tribal schools have their own presses. This bodes well for generating realistic art histories, and there are far more works than could ever be examined in a single essay.