|Ah Tz'ib, a Mayan word referring to painters and writers|
While it’s clear that we need new vocabulary to discuss Indigenous art; the effort to find new words seems to be stymied. One problem is, especially here in the southwest, there’s an incredible volume of writing about Native art, but it’s dominated by the language of marketing and hyperbole and seldom written by people with both a background in arts and Native cultures.
The first obvious challenge is that much of the dialogue takes place in the English language, whose grammar is hardwired for antonyms, that is binary opposites, such as black/white, hot/cold, or right/wrong. In the language, these opposites seem clear cut and logical. However, in reality, couldn’t transparent be the opposite of black or morally relative between the opposite of both right and wrong? The pairing of concepts as binary opposites is rife with unspoken assumptions that steer the ensuing dialogue in a predetermined direction. That’s why I have tried in the past to write about the futility of any discussion positioning traditional in opposition to contemporary or craft against fine art. The racism at the core of these pairings is inexcusable—the notion that tribally specific art or art informed by tribal values is old fading away before the Western-sanctioned new or that artists using non-Western forms have no content or message to convey but are only repeating decorative utilitarian forms.
Traditional is not a bad word at all, but everyone has her or his own definition of it. As Scott Ennis (Cherokee Nation) once said, “Tradition is like cornbread; everyone has their own recipe, but it’s still cornbread.” Personally, I view traditional as being ceremonially involved in one’s tribe, speaking one’s language, reflecting and living one’s tribal worldview, which is all completely positive and something to aspire to. Locally, some Pueblo people see traditional art as following procedures and artistic prescribed collectively for a reason. Whether tradition describes what’s in a person’s heart or in techniques and aesthetics (or both), it’s a term grounded in an Indigenous community. If an artist is creating video art of their tribal members using their own language, wouldn’t that be traditional?
A place to reject the word traditional is how it is used in marketing transitional Native art forms. A great deal stays the same in the Native art world because vast quantities of money is invested in keeping things the same. Because certain art forms were marketed in a certain way in the early 20th century, other dealers want to keep artists in their ascribed categories. For instance, the notion that overlay silver working technique is Hopi. The overlay style was developed and promoted by Hopi artists such as Fred Kabotie and Paul Saufkie for veterans returning from World War II (Byrne et al. 191–192). The fact that people initially resisted Charles Loloma’s use of gold in jewelry boggles my mind, when Hopi jewelers only adopted silverwork in the late 19th century. That’s on par with Oscar Howe’s 1958 rejection from the Philbrook since he didn’t paint Flatstyle, which was developed in the 1910s to 1930s. That drive, usually by non-Natives, to freeze art in time should has nothing to with the Indigenous perspective of tradition and should be actively resisted.
From a modernist Western perspective, integration within one's community hasn’t necessarily been the ideal in art; individual self-expression has been celebrated—even fetishized in the romantic vision of a lone genius struggling in a studio. The primacy of community versus the individual could be a potential fault line between Native and non-Native art; however, I believe the best of post-modern Western art is in the process of evolving back toward the community in the arts. Especially since so many historical art stars have had innumerable people working with them to fabricate their art.
And historically, “innovation” has been celebrated in Western art over “tradition”, in the sense of recreating pre-existing forms or designs; however, it’s easy to argue that there’s nothing new under the sun and a great deal of “innovation” is just appropriation. Appropriation, or the reuse or reference of early artworks, is the earmark of the contemporary art world. An excellent example of this is the work of Sherrie Levine, who in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, photographed or recreated famous pieces of art, shifting their context. In 1982, Levin rephotographed the Great Depression-era social realist photographs of Walker Evans (Owens 114). How do the artworks change, now they are by a woman in the 1980s instead of a man in the 1930s? I would argue that there also incredibly potent conceptual possibilities behind a 2010s Odawa basket weaver weaving a black ash basket — how has the environment shifted, how do pesticides and invasive species come into play, what range of technologies are employed, how has societies’ perception of basketry shifted and changed, what actions is the basket weaver performing that have no English words but can be described in the Odawa language?
Appropriation with a complete disregard for the earlier work's cultural context or meaning would be misappropriation — or a banal or commercial use of sacred imagery. That could be another point of departure between Western and Native art since the brunt of Western art is forcefully secular.
“Derivative” doesn’t get used much in Native art but it should, since it implies a copying that doesn’t renew or add to meaning but rather produces a weaker copy, akin to cloning plants. An artist who copies but doesn’t acknowledge the source would be derivative, and an artist using symbols without understanding or at least striving to understand their meanings might also be described this way.
Obviously, these are just stray thoughts on an ongoing major discussion, but I have observed that discourse improves when more precise terms are substituted for worn out, catchall terms. What the hell is authenticity? Why not discuss honesty? Is an artwork traditional or is it historical, tribally specific, customary, or using non-Western media?
I’m extremely curious to hear other people’s “forbidden words” they would like stricken from Native art discourse and to hear more Indigenous words for art.
|Lane stitch on Arapaho moccasin, 1880s|
- Arke, Pia. “Act 5: Ethno-Aesthetics.” Re-Thinking Nordic Colonialism. 2006. Web.
- Lawlor, Mary. Public Native America: Tribal Self-Representations in Museums, Powwows, and Casinos. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2006. Web.
- Martin, Jack B. and Margaret McKane Mauldin. A Dictionary of Creek/Muskogee. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004. Print.
- Montgomery, John. “AJ u-xu-[lu].” Dictionary of Maya Hieroglyphs. Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies.
- Nichols, John D. and Earl Nyholm. A Concise Dictionary of Minnesota Ojibwe. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995. Web.
- Owens, Craig. Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. Web.