17 February 2011

Questionartist #2

Do you have any advice about writing artist's statements?
It is usually very difficult for artists to write effectively about their own work. There is a good reason for this; they are artists not writers. Having someone else write the artist statement is advised.

Ideally, the artist can work with an art historian, a curator, a gallery owner or even a professional creative writer so that their "authentic" (this work is used with caution) voice and comes through. Although, depending on the person chosen to write about the work, it can get to pompous and be filled with art-speak. It’s a tough call.

The bottom line is that artists need to have someone else write about their work in an effective, non-flowery and honest way. The artist statement can make or break interpretation or a sale.
–Traci L. Morris, PhD (Chickasaw),
Owner/Homahota Consulting,
Policy Analyst/ Native Public Media

Personalize the art form or yourself as an artist. People become involved with art and/or artists, when they can feel a sense of connection.

Make it relevant for others. One of the challenges with specific art genres or niches is that people are looking for ways to make the aesthetics, or content relevant to themselves.

Share the "quirky" or the "behind the scenes" story that shapes the artwork or influences the artist. People are often drawn in by the story that offers some interesting aspect about the process for making the artwork. Keep it simple assuming that the audience is not familiar enough with the process to identify what is the"out-of-the-ordinary" aspect. When I interview an artist I am always interested to uncover what engages them in the process.

One artists relayed that he is actually interpreting traditional songs through very abstract markings and the tools he prefers are not the conventional painting tools such as paint brushes, instead he uses many different kinds of objects we encounter daily to make these markings. Another friend who is a painter is so engrossed in the process of under-painting that there are often many different images, objects and whole paintings buried below the final piece.

A filmmaker friend of mine shared a really funny story about how he solved the dilemma for feeding the actors during the filming with little budget to work with - it involved "a borrowed frybread trailer." This made everyone laugh when they heard the story. I would have loved to have been able to feature a photo of the frybread trailer with the promotions but we couldn't find one. So save everything and document the off the wall stuff, it humanizes the artists or the story and might be the very thing that makes you as an artist stand out from the rest.

Make your statement somewhat relevant to the institution that is featuring your artwork. This really goes back to making it relevant for others. In this case it is making it relevant for the patrons at that particular venue. If your work is going to be featured at MOMA, tweak the statement slightly so that it speaks to the audience that will be viewing your work at that venue or the theme that was used to curate the show. If that same piece travels to the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, there is probably a very different curatorial approach, so find a way to communicate with that in mind.

Find a way to pose questions in your statement that positively encourage the viewer to interact in some way with the work.
—Shoshana Wasserman (Thlopthlocco Tribal Town
and the Muscogee (Creek) Nation),
Director of Marketing & Public Relations,
American Indian Cultural Center and Museum

13 February 2011

Denver Art Museum in the News

The Denver Art Museum just completed a massive renovation of their Native American galleries. The changes were heralded by a number of newspaper articles, including front page of the New York Times (thanks to M for point this out!). It’s heartening to see intelligent conversation about Native American art and the issues of its display in the mainstream media.

Roxanne Swentzell (Santa Clara Pueblo) is spending the next six months working on a monumental straw and clay sculpture, Mud Woman Rolls On. This beautifully drives home the point that Native art is alive and evolving, since visitors witnessed the construction as soon at they enter the third floor gallery.

Most of the articles focused on the museum’s and specifically Curator of Native Arts Nancy Blomberg’s efforts in presenting the work as art instead of ethnography, and de-emphasizing the history. For instance, the work is not arranged chronologically (Ellingboe). A common criticism of the National Museum of the American Indian was that it presented little or no history, but personally. Personally, I think that is fantastic. Not that learning our histories isn’t incredibly important, but it’s also important to drive home to the general public the fact Native Americans are living today. In one of their displays, DAM directly asks the viewers, “what is Indian art? Must it be old? Must it be functional?” (Ellingboe).

Several of the articles also focused on the museums’ efforts to attribute works to specific artists and list their names. Through persistence in research, Blomberg identified the creator of a 19th century representational ink-and-watercolor painting of a Ute Bear Dance. After visiting other museums and asking Colorado tribes, she happened to notice a similar styled painting in a Bonhams and Bonhams catalog that was sign "Fenno," which enabled her to identify the artist as being Louis Fenno, a Ute painter who passed on in 1903 (Dobrzynski).

Traditionally many artists did not sign their works. The Western notions of the lone artist superstar doesn’t translate well to Native American art world, and I can’t imagine an Indian Damien Hirst. For the most part, friends and family keep people’s egos in check; however, attributing art is good because it humanizes the work. For most of last four centuries, Western collectors and others have exoticized Native American art, so the pendulum swinging towards humanity is a great thing.

DAM doesn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater: directly after the artists’ name, when known, is their tribal affiliation, then date (Macmillan). They provide contextualizing information about the subject matter and the piece’s provenance — telling the stories that draw in viewer’s who might have minimal experience with Native art.

Ironically on the subject of attribution, the New York Times mistakenly gave the wrong name for the current president of NAASA, Karen Kramer Russell. But this illustrates that it’s better to try, and some mistakes on the way that can be corrected, than not even make the effort. Scholars are other institutions have been able to attribute art even back to the 18th century.

Congratulations to the Denver Art Museum on their two new Native galleries and kudos and thanks to the art writers for bring Native American art issues to the reading public.

  • Davis, Joyce. “Going Native: American Indian exhibits relaunch in Denver.” Daily Reporter-Herald. 4 Feb 2011. Web.
  • Dobrzynski, Judith H. “Honoring Art, Honoring Artists: Denver Museum Uses Scholarship To Attribute Native American Works To Individuals, Not Just To Tribes.” New York Times. 6 Feb 2011: 1. Web.
  • Judith Dobrzynski also has a daily blog.
  • “Corrections: Arts & Leisure.” New York Times. 12 Feb 2011. Web.
  • Ellingboe, Sonya. “Display showcases American Indian art.” Highlands Ranch Herald. 4 Feb 2011. Web.
  • Macmillan, Kyle. “Denver Art Museum offers a new way to see American Indian art.” Denver Post. 21 Jan 2011. Web.
  • Photos of Louis Fenno (Ute, d. 1903) and his family at the Mountain West Digital Library.

07 February 2011

Heather Ahtone: Designed to Last

“Designed to Last: Striving toward an Indigenous American Aesthetic”
The International Journal of the Arts in Society. Volume 4, Number 2, 2009: 373-386.
Heather Ahtone (Choctaw-Chickasaw)

When I got my hands on “Designed to Last,” I handed it out to people like Chick tracts. So many people write about the need to assess Indigenous American art based on indigenous values; however, this essay was the first time I have ever seen anyone propose a way to do so. I will attempt to summarize her main points.

Choctaw-Chickasaw scholar Heather Ahtone is a doctoral candidate at Kansas University and a research associate for the University of Oklahoma’s Diversity in Geosciences Project. She draws upon the traditional knowledge of her relatives, tribespeople, and members of other tribes to complement her academic studies.

Ahtone was conducting research for the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum, when a Ponca man explained to her how the design of his floral beaded pipe bag was a map with a related hunting song (373). This revelation crystallized the complexity of Indigenous American art for her.

In the past scholarship of Indigenous America art came from a Eurocentric perspective. Art historians examined art collected with little information or cultural context or judged the art solely by its decorative. This formalist approach, popular in the Modern Era, barely skims the surface of the artwork’s meaning. The need for Indigenous methodologies in art history is clear. Donald Fixico (Shawnee-Sac & Fox-Muscogee Creek-Seminole) writes, “The scholar must consider the worldview of an Indian group to comprehend its members’ sense of logic and ideology” (374). Aaron Fry writes that “…after 150 years of ethnographic studies of Pueblo peoples, art historical examinations of twentieth-century Pueblo arts have failed to fully engage Pueblo concepts and perspectives on the production of these arts” (374). Western scholars often tend to divide ancient or contemporary Native art, instead of acknowledging the cultural continuity between the works.

In his article “In Search of Native American Aesthetics,” Leroy N. Meyer describes tribal cultures as “deeply integrated, unlike the fragmented, cosmopolitan culture of the dominant society” (375). Indigenous art cannot be separated from philosophy, spirituality, or daily life—different expressions of Indigenous cultures are integrated and complement each other.

Steven Leuthold proposed a framework for understanding Native art in his book, Indigenous Aesthetics: Native Art, Media, and Identity (University of Texas Press, 1998), that “addresses the relationship between aesthetics and other cultural realms with reducing one realm to the other. In this sense an artwork can be valued for its expressiveness, complexity, creativity, or formal structure… without artificially separating the experience of art from other valuative dimensions of experience: the moral, economic, political, interpersonal, or spiritual” (376). Leuthold’s methodology makes it clear that Western art theory, as Ahtone writes “serves to seek out point of distinction and difference, to use a linear approach to hierarchy for identifying culturally based expressions” (376). Leuthold applies his method to indigenous film and video, but Ahtone wonders if his approach would work the non-Western media of tribally specific traditional arts.

Instead of focusing on points of difference, Ahtone suggests that Indigenous art theory should be based on “finding relationships and shared commonalities” (376) She writes, “The use of relationships is a part of the coded language embedded in all aspects of Indigenous American culture” (376). These relationships can be expressed through “living metaphors” that are expressed through visual arts, dance, song, and oral history. Relationships of natural forces, including humans, reflect two fundamental values in indigenous society: balance and reciprocity. Balance, or harmony, reflects “the mutually dependent relationship that all forms of life have with each other.” Reciprocity is expressed through generosity and “the necessary acts of generosity that maintain balance between interacting forces, including human, natural, and spiritual” (377). Together these are part of “an interdependent pattern that extends like a spider web and draws strength form the interdisciplinary, yet tangible connections” (377). Looking at Indigenous aesthetic, one should also study science, humanities, religion, politics, and other disciplines because an integrated, interconnected, interdisciplinary approach will enhance one’s understand of all these and other fields.

“The traditional knowledge of Indigenous American culture, largely anchored to concepts of regeneration and reciprocity, is expressed and practiced in a network of symbols, metaphors, and myths,” Ahtone writes, which manifest in “ceremonies, prayers, songs, dances, and the arts—largely communal experiences” (377). Regeneration, or renewal, also play a key role in indigenous cultures.

Art materials can have intrinsic meanings and significance in Native art. Many indigenous art forms are made from materials gathered from the natural environment. A protocol of reciprocity often guides the gathering of the material, which reflects the artist’s relationship to the land or water. For example, indigenous California basket weavers have specific songs for gathering certain plants and observe strict menstrual taboos. Ahtone gives the example of Southwestern potters praying and giving offerings before gathering clay. The clay is often shaped into a hollow round form with a circular opening, resembling the earth and the emergence of the people from the underground to the surface. Designs painted on the clay can reference natural phenomena such as weather patterns. “Through this process of reverence and utilization of materials,” writes Ahtone, “many Indigenous people share a reverence for the objects based just on materials alone that is without comparison in the Western culture” (379).

Indigenous artists might use new designs with traditional materials, or they might use traditional designs with new materials, but either way, they are “expanding the visual dialogue about the Indigenous experience”—as opposed to departing from it (379). Ahtone credits art’s ability to convey traditional knowledge and spiritual beliefs as one of the reasons tribal cultures have survived despite centuries of colonialist suppression (379).

Metaphors—symbols used to represent related concepts or objects—are central to Indigenous art. The metaphoric mind—an intuitive mind in direct communication with the subconscious and nature—can perceive “beyond the limitations of our rational mind” (380). The symbols that create a metaphoric narrative were created and regenerated over generations. They represent natural forces and cosmological, both of which are timeless and interconnected. Many tribes’ oral histories contain both the past, present, and future, and much Native art is equally timeless in scope.

Leroy Little Bear (Blackfoot) writes, “The Native American paradigm is comprised of and includes ideas of constant motion and flux, existence consisting of energy waves, interrelationships, all things being animate, space/place, renewal and all things being imbued with spirit” (381). In this state of flux, symbols “provide anchoring points for Indigenous peoples to acknowledge and be reassured that their current dilemmas and circumstances are no more than an evolution of the difficulties and bounties shared by their ancestors,” write Ahtone (381).

The strength of symbols is that they can have multiple interpretations, and the artist can add their own personal meanings to the larger cultural meanings. These multiple readings enhance each other. This flexible and additive nature of symbolism helps Indigenous American arts “serve as a conduit for cultural perpetuity” (382). The repeated use of symbols invites personal memories to become attached to them and can invite self-reflection. An example new symbols being created is Seminole and Muscogee patchwork, which is a 20th century development. Seminole patchwork developed as an art form primarily in the 1920s and 1930s. By creating colorful appliqué patterns from scraps, Seminole women could create beautiful attire for themselves and their families during hard economic times. The patchwork designs were given names connected to natural forces, such as lightning or storms. Stories related to the imagery followed, and clans connected to the natural phenomena adopted certain designs. Worn during dances, state occasions, and ceremonies, the patchwork patterns become intertwined with self-identity and tribal self-determination.

The ability of these multilayered, collective and personal symbols, metaphors, and content-laden materials to relay cultural knowledge is reflected in many Indigenous artists’ statements. Ahtone cites the artist statement of the late Michael Kabotie (Hopi) as a prime example. He painted the Hopi feathered serpent, which, as Ahtone writes, “represents the dynamic between heaven and earth and the constant power struggle between these two energy sources” (383). In his work, the feathered serpent also speaks to our dangerous dependence on oil—a contemporary interpretation of a timeless symbol.

In oral societies, the arts have served as a visual language and connect tribal members across space and time. Ahtone concludes, “Using this aesthetic, those concepts of the metaphoric mind, uses of symbols and myths, within a culturally specific context, allows for a discussion about the art that incorporates the metaphysical without becoming romantic or sentimental” (383-4). She invites critical review and is currently putting her methodologies to work in critiquing contemporary Indigenous American art.

The entire essay can be ordered through: The International Journal of the Arts in Society.

Heather Ahtone is presenting her paper, “Reading Beneath the Surface: Joe Feddersen’s Parking Lot” at the College Art Association Conference in New York on Wednesday, February 9, 2011.

The Michael Kabotie interview is online here.