06 December 2011

Review | Manifestations: New Native Art Criticism, Part 2

Manifestations: New Native Art Criticism features four essays by Nancy Marie Mithlo, Stephen Fadden and Stephen Wall, Sherry Farrell Racette, and Mario A. Caro. These alone are worth the price of the book.

The First Wave… This Time Around

In “The First Wave… This Time Around,” Nancy Marie Mithlo discusses the Vision Project in terms of the current state of affairs in Native contemporary art. She sees mainstream art critics being impatient with Native artists’ insistence on referencing their tribal communities and histories, but “Indian people continue to insist on being Indian” (Mithlo 18). “Why,” she asks, “when it would be so much easier to simply seek out hybrid, transnational, post-Indian or some such trendy association, do we insist on claiming our identities as Native peoples?” (19).

Mithlo asks the compelling question, “Is there bad Indian art?” (21), but doesn’t answer it, instead pointing out that markets and artists institutions make qualitative evaluations of indigenous art, as does the “intellectual capital” an artwork earns, through art writing. Most of the writing about Native art comes from the non-scholarly, “light press” (21). That’s especially evident here in Santa Fe, where local newspapers and magazines repeat each other’s same factual errors. She writes, “non-intellectual sources are guiding the assessment of contemporary American Indian arts, and that this casual, cultural art-of-the-week variety of arts writing has exerted a harmful influence on the development of a more serious field of inquiry” (21). She concludes that “[t]he ability to represent ourselves as Native peoples—intact and collectively—is a human right, too frequently ignored” (27).

“Indigenous curatorial methodologies” Mithlo says are defined “by four criteria: it is long-term, reciprocal, mutually-meaningful, and includes mentorship” (24-5). To art critics that question the need for self-defined indigenous criteria, she writes, “A dismissal of the logic and strategies of Native nations (and their artists) to move forward with their own communities intact mirrors the logical colonialism” (25).

Invisible Forces of Change:
United States Indian Policy and American Indian Art

Steve Fadden and Stephen Wall, both professors in IAIA’s Indigenous Liberal Studies Department, co-wrote “Invisible Forces of Changes: United States Indian Policy and American Indian Art.” They share US Indian history 101 and put forward three examples of artists that exemplify major eras in Indian policy. David Cusick, a founder of the Iroquois Realist School, illustrates the Formative Era of 1776–1810 when tribes were relatively as strong as the fledgling United States (29-30). Angel DeCora, whose life and work is defined by Indian boarding schools, defined the Allotment Era of 1880-1932, when assimilation into European-American society was the government’s mission (32, 34). Allan Houser, the first Chiricahua Apache born outside of captivity since 1886, is part of the Indian Reorganization Era of the 1930s and 1940s. Houser directed benefited from the Indian New Deal reforms allowing tribal governance, education, and self-expression in the arts (34-35).

As destructive and capricious as US Indian policy has been, Fadden and Wall argue, it’s impossible to ignore its role in Native art history. They do not describe any of the three artist’s work. Is familiarity with Cusick and DeCora’s art a given for the general readership? It’s curious that they do not reference Rennard Strickland and Margaret Archuleta’s Shared Visions: Native American Painters and Sculptors in the Twentieth Century, which also traces the influence of US federal Indian policy on Native arts.

Encoded Knowledge: Memory and Object in Contemporary Native American Art

While pointing out the dangers of generalization about Native art, Sherry Farrell Racette puts forward some of the underpinnings of indigenous art theory, which takes a great deal of bravery. She does so in a lyrical manner, showing respect for the subject matter—cherished belief systems and values—which, in print, have most commonly been written in print in the cold, reductionist language of Western anthropologists. Racette quotes the Traditional Care Committee of NMAI: “Objects are alive and must be handled with respect” (Mithlo 41). Contemporary mainstream Western art tends towards the nonreligious, but for indigenous art, an animist reading is appropriate and should be explored further, because that quote is literately true.

“Oral traditions were never solely oral,” Racette writes (41), as many artworks are mnemonic devices with their own visual language. Through examples, she illustrates the need of living Native peoples to engage with Native art for meanings to be activated and realized. The challenges of writing about traditional knowledge is the vulnerability of sharing long held beliefs with the public and that, in my personal opinion, all Native artists and writers have a gate-keeping role—determining what is appropriate to share with the public and what is not.

Continuity is a guiding principle in comparing Native art throughout time. “New objects become the storied object,” Racette writes (43). The one aspect of Native art theory that seems most agreed upon is the narrative quality of the art.

In the section “To Make It Correctly” (43-45), Racette points out that process and materials can have meaning and significance beyond simply being a means to an end. Technique has been exalted in the Native art world; however, Racette writes that the attitude and energy of the process has its own importance (45).

Artists, such as Diego Romero and Nicholas Galanin, use “strategies of deconstruction and contradiction” to explore and disrupt colonial attitudes and racism (50). Because what is familiar to a Natives can be jarring and challenging to a non-Natives, artists have to be conscious of the multiple audiences for their work.

“Many objects are a form of visual literacy,” Racette concludes, “not only in terms of the symbols coded on their surface or the actions and gestures that provide their human context, but for the words, prayers, tears and fervent hopes that are spoken into them at the moment of their creation and over their lifetime” (52).

Owning the Image: Indigenous Arts since 1990

In his overview of developments in the last twenty years of Native arts, Mario A. Caro covers a lot of ground in a short space. He sees “a vibrant field with every-increasing participation by … Native practitioners involved in determining how Native art is contextualized” (56). He chose 1990 as a starting point, since that is when NAGPRA and the American Indian Arts and Crafts Act were both passed into legislation, rapidly followed by the 1992 Columbus quincentenary (57).

In the 1990s, identity politics figured largely in the mainstream art world, when James Luna participated in the Whitney Biennial and later collaborated with outspoken Latina/o artists Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña.

Art history and anthropology have guided Native art writing, often with damaging effects, leading to their reassessment. Caro sees Native Art History finally emerging as a coherent discipline, and “it is the entry of Native scholars into the field that advanced theoretical frameworks based on paradigms of thought originating from within their communities” (60). The exoticism, objectification, and general “Other-ing” of Native art are cut through by self-representation.

Jolene Rickard’s doctoral thesis states “that Native art is, and has always been, a form a knowledge production informed by Native perspectives” (60). This might seem obvious but it is anything but, especially in light of the abundance of narcissistic 20th-century writing by European-Americans suggesting Native art was created and controlled by European-American institutions for a European-American audience.

The increasing corpus of Native art writing is rich in exhibition catalogs and anthologies, but still lacking general art surveys and scholarly art criticism (61). What surveys exist do not begin to cover the last several decades of artist production. Monographs are slowly increasing in numbers. Writing about individual might go against the collectivist impulse of Native scholars but are opportunities for in-depth investigation and analysis often lacking in Native art writing.

Museums have been primary sources of information about Native art, and the increase of tribal museums founded on indigenous perspectives, as well as the establishment of NMAI in DC, has drastically changed the institutional landscape of the indigenous art world (63). NMAI and indigenous curators participating in major biennial art fairs creates an international presence for indigenous arts of the Americas (64). Museum collections have influenced the market value of art.

The gallery system is not as strong, and prominent contemporary Native art galleries are located away from major art centers such as New York or London. Indian art markets have increased dramatically in number; however, these compete against themselves.

A lack of support network and infrastructure hampers the growth of many indigenous artists; however, community-based non-profit centers have increased and provide some mentorship (66-7).


Perusing the footnotes, one can see the impact of the internet in fostering dialogue. Personal interviews and correspondence directly with the artists is common. One of the draws of Native art, for natives and non-natives, is that most of the artists are accessible and willing to communicate to the public.

While certainly valuable for a collective updating of contemporary art for the general readership, is Manifestations really art criticism? W. H. Auden (Anglo-American, 1907-1973) is quoted in A Short Guide to Writing About Art defining what functions a critic can provide:
  1. Introduce me to authors or works of which I was hitherto unaware.
  2. Convince me that I have undervalued an author or a work because I have not read them carefully enough.
  3. Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures which I could never have seen for myself because I do not know enough and never shall.
  4. Give a “reading” of a work which increases my understanding of it.
  5. Throw light upon the process of artistic “Making”
  6. Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc. (Barnet 8).
Seen in this light, Manifestations is a success. Evaluation is only one aspect of art criticism and not the most vital. Introducing and mapping the artists’ perspective backgrounds and philosophical perspectives as well as their cultural contexts is invaluable. The book lets the public know that the Native American art world is building firm ground on which to stand.

So far the book is only available through the MOCNA gift shop. Their website is "under construction," but their phone number is 1-888-922-4242. It's finally available on, at a good discount too.


Lara Evans said...

Great post, America! I just got my copy in the mail and haven't got to read it yet... I'm still at the "looking at the pictures" stage. It's my college's equivalence of finals week. It will take me another week before I can step away from teaching and catch up on my fun, inspiring "art book" reading.

Catherine H said...

Great article America, you gave so much to consider.

Anonymous said...

Fine that this is published, however none of these authors is an art historian. Art criticism and art history scholarship is not one in the same. Add art historians to the mix.

ahalenia said...

Actually, several of the author writing individual biographies are indigenous art historians, notably Jessica Metcalfe and Lara Evans. That said, Native American art history is still woefully underdeveloped as a discipline, and we desperately need new surveys of indigenous American art history, especially one written by art historians who are themselves indigenous.

As an artist, I'm continually frustrated by the fact that so many people in positions of power over indigenous art institutions neither have an art background or a background in indigenous studies. How can our art world grow if so many influential people don't know the basics of indigenous American art history, mainstream art history, indigenous cultures, or contemporary art theory?