23 January 2011

[Re]inventing the Wheel: Advancing the Dialogue on Contemporary American Indian Art

The Denver Art Museum, a long-term supporter of contemporary Native arts, hosted a symposium, [Re]inventing the Wheel" in 1996. Inspired by Edgar Heap-of-Bird's monumental sculpture, Wheel, commissioned by the museum, this symposium yielded critical discussion that was compiled in the book, [Re]inventing the Wheel: Advancing the Dialogue on Contemporary American Indian Art. Like most good books about Native American art, this one is out of print, and a used copy is currently available on Amazon for a mere $268.24 last time I checked.

The symposium examined questions of the nature of Indian art that date back at last half a century with no consensus to the answers. Editor Nancy Blomberg writes, "We're not really going around in circles—or are we?" and describes “stagnation in the field of native arts in articulating a satisfactory contemporary native art theory." And she goes on to ask, "why are we now well into the twenty-first century still using the unproductive rhetoric of the last century?" The individual essays attempt to address these reoccurring questions and move forward with them — what is the role of Native art in the mainstream art world? How should Native art be exhibited? What terminology should be used to describe it? How can such diverse art practices of hundreds of tribes be grouped together? Should they be?

As European-American art writer Rennard Strickland wrote almost three decades ago, "A reasoned evaluative perspective must be established so that current Indian art controversies do not continue forever. The debate over modernism and traditional must be brought to an end..." (24) Why do these discussions never die or evolve? Possibly because people don’t really want them to, possibly because the scholarly circles discussing Native art are too small or removed from tribal communities; possibly because the powers that be in the mainstream art world ignore Native artists completely. No matter, this book attempts to address issues and map a way forward.

Edgar Heap of Birds (Southern Cheyenne) provides the first essay, "Life as Art: Creating through Acts of Personal and Cultural Renewal.” He describes his personal development as an artist and discusses public art collaborations he created in several countries, leading up to his monumental public art piece, Wheel, commissioned by the Denver Art Museum. Two interesting points he brings up are a warning against overly creating art that simply refers to itself and his comment: "…I think it is very important for Native artists to realize that when one is making, or creating, modern art, it is essential, especially for me, to make sure it does not subvert religious aspects of sacred tribal knowledge" (35).

In his essay, “The Prehistory of Wheel: Symbolic Inversions and Traumatic Memory in the Art of Edgar Heap of Birds,” W. Jackson Rushing III examines Heap of Birds’ art practices that led up to the 50-foot-wide art installation, consisting of ten red porcelain-enameled structures and additional text in Cheyenne and English. Rushing also lists other monumental public art reflecting an “'un-celebration’ of colonial culture” (75) placing Wheel within a larger art movement.

Other essays from the book are summarized in subsequent blog entries.

… [A]n Indian painting is any painting that's done by an Indian.—T.C. Cannon (15)

• Blomberg, Nancy J., ed. [Re]inventing the Wheel: Advancing the Dialogue on Contemporary American Indian Art. Denver: Denver Art Museum, 2008. ISBN 978-0914738596.

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