30 September 2012

Cultivating Vocabulary: An Ongoing Process

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?

While it can be a challenge to make the leap from English to tribal languages, the wisdom is stored within the languages. I just learned an amazing word, Eqqumiitsuliorneq, which is the Greenland Inuit word for art and more literately translates to mean “odds products, something artificial” (Arke 5).  The Cherokee word for art, ᏗᏟᎶᏍᏙᏗ or ditlilosdodi, refers to making an imitation of reality. The Muscogee Creek word for art is nakvkakv and their word for artist is nakvjayv (Martin and Mauldin 193). A Minnesota Ojibwe word for artist is mazinibii’igewinini (Nichols and Nyholm 80). The Mayan word uj uxul literately means “he of the burnishing/scratching” and is also the title of the royal sculptor (Montgomery).

Not every tribe has a word for “art,” as we are so often informed, but related words are also potent. The Navajo word, hózhó, has had a widespread impact on art discussion. Extrapolating from Harry Walters’ definition, author Mary Lawlor writes, “The sense of beauty invoked in the term is clearly not synonymous with Western concepts that emphasize an exclusively visual appeal based on limited aesthetic criteria. Hózhó implies harmony as well as ethical and moral strength, which derived from a fluent relationship between the one who is hózhó and other beings in a social or spiritual environment” (Lawlor 68).

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
Addendum: An example of improving terminology is using the term "lane stitch" for the technique of sewing parallel lines of beadwork with single stitches at each end. This stitch was once known as "lazy squaw stitch," an utterly insulting term, then it became known as "lazy stitch." For anyone who's tried their hand at beadwork, there's nothing "lazy" about it. The current term, "lane stitch" is both neutral and actually describes the nature of the stitch.
  • 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.

11 September 2012

In a Nutshell, Part 2

When someone mentions a supposed dichotomy between "fine arts" and "crafts" in Indigenous American art, I scan for escape routes. That conversation goes nowhere, because the unspoken framework governing those terms is fundamentally at odds with Indigenous art.

The notion of "art for art's sake," that visual art should have no utilitarian purpose, was proposed by Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant in his 1790 Critique of Judgement (Fenner 7) and was echoed by many others in the following century. "During this period, 'the fine arts' were those that fit the aestheticist criteria for art for the sake of art and for the sake of nothing else," writes author David E. W. Fenner (7). This Enlightenment era philosophy still echoes among those would haven't studied any art theory in the last century.

A certain cadre of European and European-American thinkers strove to separate art from the banality of daily life, then subsequently, others have spent the last hundred years attempting to re-integrate art into people's lives. The Arts and Craft moment, John Dewey's book Art as Experience (1934), happenings of the 1960s, Thomas Crow's Modern Art in the Common Culture (1998), public art, street art, relational art, community art, etc.

My tribe never signed up to follow Kant or separate our art from our the rest of our lives. Aesthetics and content are interwoven in our artistic creations, ranging from installation to gig-making to basketry to digital art to featherwork.

Martin A. Berger sums up the situation with rare lucidity: "...trac[ing] our modern conception of art back to the eighteenth-century separation of the fine arts from crafts, of artists from artisans, and of aesthetic pleasure from entertainment. These divisions broke a two-thousand-year-old Western convention that art was any activity practiced with skill and grace. In the modern West, art came to be defined by the product created, the person making it, and the experience it generated in audiences rather than the quality of what was fashioned. [Larry] Shiner notes how this new definition of art helped consolidate relations of power: 'To elevate some genres to the spiritual status of fine art and their producers to heroic creators while relegating other genres to the status of mere utility and their producers to fabricators is more than a conceptual transformation.' He points out that 'the genres and activities chosen for elevation and those chosen for demotion reinforce race, class, and gender lines.'" (Berger 99–100).

Berger continues, "Since cultures outside of the West had never divorced aesthetics from utility, it was easy for European-Americans to devalue even visually alluring objects nonwhite peoples produced, given that such object always served a practical function" (Berger 100).
  • Berger, Martin A. A Sight Unseen: Whiteness and American Visual Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.
  • Fenner, David E. W. Art in Context: Understanding Aesthetic Value. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2008.

05 September 2012

Cherokee Stories of the Turtle Island Liars' Club

ᎦᎵᎡᎵᎦ! Cherokee Stories of the Turtle Island Liars' Club has just been published by the University of North Carolina Press. The result of years of collaboration between Christopher B. Teuton, a Cherokee author, literary critic, and associate professor, and the Turtle Island Liars' Club, a storytelling group from northeastern Oklahoma featuring Woody Hansen, Sequoyah Guess, Sammy Sill, and the late Hastings Shade, former Deputy Chief of the Cherokee Nation and Cherokee National Treasures. The storytelling group includes citizens of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians and the Cherokee Nation, both of Oklahoma, and they maintain close ties with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, located in North Carolina.

Dr. Teuton (Cherokee Nation) is currently part of the University of North Carolina's Department of American Studies and specializes in American Indian literature. He has dedicated years to recording stories of the Liars' Club and interviewing the members of the group. Through a yearlong residency at the School of Advanced Research in Santa Fe, Teuton was able to edit and develop the text for the book. From the SAR website, "there is no precise word in Cherokee for storytelling. In a language full of puns, the term used instead is gagoga, the word for lying—which brings us to the Turtle Island Liars’ Club."

Water Spider Steals Fire, America Meredith
Cherokee Stories of the Turtle Island Liars' Club is the first collection of Western Cherokee oral history to be published in almost 40 years, when Jack and Anna Kilpatrick wrote their beloved work, Friends of Thunder: Folktales of the Oklahoma Cherokees. Teuton's new book reveals how Cherokee storytelling continues to evolve to reflect current events, while maintaining an unbroken to Cherokee prehistory. Forty stories are interwoven with biographical information about the four storytellers. The Cherokee language, both transliterated and in Sequoyah's syllabary, is used freely through the book. I had the distinct honor of illustrating the book, which tested my ability to visualize ancient Cherokees and their animal friends.

Cherokee author Daniel Heath Justice writes, "This will be a deeply treasured book for Cherokee individuals, families, and communities, as it shows beyond any doubt how rich, complex, and beautiful Cherokee oral and literary expressions continue to be in this chaotic world. It is easily one of the most important books on Cherokee worldview and tradition ever written."