- Decorated with spirals and migration symbols, Nathan Begay's multicolored
jar resembles an ancient assemblage of shards. But it's actually
a synthesis of historical and modern: Mr. Begay, a 46-year-old artist
of Hopi and Navajo descent, created it five years ago.
inclusion with some 2,000 other objects in the Heard Museum's new
exhibition of its permanent collection here reflects a sweeping
change in the way museums are presenting Native American art. Rather
than focusing on an ethnographic past, they are celebrating the
full continuum of such art, juxtaposing contemporary pieces with
historical ones and integrating native voices - often first-person
narratives - into explanatory text and media.
the Heard, to the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western
Art in Indianapolis, to the Smithsonian's National Museum of the
American Indian in Washington, museums with substantial Native American
collections are aggressively pursuing new work.
that end, dozens of museum officials will converge this weekend
on Santa Fe, N.M., along with thousands of other private collectors,
for the city's annual Indian Market. The gathering, which began
in 1922, draws more than a thousand Native American artists who
sell their work and compete in a juried competition held by the
Southwestern Indian Arts Association. Museums seize the opportunity
to discover contemporary artists and to become directly acquainted
from its striking landscape, the Southwest continues to capture
the public imagination because of the presence of Native American
communities that keep their art, culture and language alive. The
Heard's proximity to those communities and its first-person approach
has led to some curatorial insights.
all starts with a commitment to get it right in the eyes of our
native advisers and native communities," said Frank H. Goodyear
Jr., director of the Heard. "We want to present the material in
a way that connects to people and helps them understand native cultures,
builds cultural sensitivity, builds cultural awareness, and makes
them want to go beyond what they've seen."
museum's installation, titled "Home: Native People in the Southwest,"
opened in a refurbished 21,000 square-foot gallery in May. It was
years in the making: the Heard's previous permanent exhibition was
in place for two decades.
June, the Eiteljorg in Indianapolis also opened a reinstallation
of some of its Native American collections, in a new 45,000-square-foot
wing. The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., is developing a
new installation as well. A common thread in these efforts is to
display Native American holdings as full-fledged art objects, but
with a heavy emphasis on process and context.
installation at the Heard, displayed by tribal geography, covers
the spectrum of peoples in the region. More than 50 recorded interviews
with members of Native American tribes serve as the foundation for
themes like homeland, language, family and community that are explored
in exhibition text and presentations on electronic kiosks.
provides a natural introduction to the exhibition themes, since
clay is gathered from homelands and a finished work serves not only
as decoration and a means for carrying on aesthetic traditions,
but also as a vessel for cooking and storing food and water. Nampeyo,
whose pottery is on view, was the matriarch of a dynasty of Hopi-Tewa
potters and artists: a 1976 jar with a butterfly motif by her great-granddaughter
Dextra Quotskuyva is on display nearby.
Quotskuyva's son, Dan Namingha, carries on the tradition as a painter;
his "Red-Tailed Hawk Katsina" is one of the few paintings on view
in the exhibition. "My mother's work, the technical aspect is very
traditional, but her ideas are contemporary in the sense that sometimes
she'll capture something that relates to her currently," Mr. Namingha
said in a telephone interview. "I'm the same way, and Nampeyo was
the same way."
general, museums are distancing themselves from presenting Native
American art through the lens of only one discipline like art history
or anthropology, said Mr. Goodyear of the Heard.
and native peoples have had a tenuous if not difficult relationship
over the years," he said, "and that relationship hasn't been helped
by the fact that the folks that have been traditionally interpreting
the material have been non-native anthropologists, archaeologists,
ethnographers, cultural historians and art historians."
Heard began breaking down some of these barriers in the 1980's,
Mr. Goodyear said, but today the hot issue remains, Who controls
Richard West Jr., director of the Smithsonian's National Museum
of the American Indian, said that his curators try "to emulate the
original context as much as possible."
why we have worked directly with communities, that's why we have
asked them to talk about the objects themselves," he said, adding,
"From the native standpoint, it was the process involved in the
creation of an object that was far more important in the end than
the object itself."
often densely packed objects and video histories in the Heard's
show make for a saturated sensory experience. In a video, Larry
Brown, a San Carlos Apache, handles a circa-1900 hand-tanned buckskin
saddlebag and explains that the cutout designs with red material
underneath were peculiar to the Apaches. A Zuni jeweler, Dan Simplicio
Jr., says in the text that much of the large-format Zuni jewelry
was made to be worn in ceremonies by both participants and spectators
so that it "could be could be seen by the ancestors looking down
showing that people are well and surrounded with beautiful things."
bracelets, pendants and bolos of Jesse Monongya, a Navajo-Hopi artist
who became a jeweler in the mid-1970's after serving in Vietnam,
figures prominently in a "Defending Home" section. Other objects
in that area include a Navajo bracelet fashioned around a Purple
Heart awarded in the 40's.
the debate over presentation, from videos to mounted objects to
blending old and new, the distinction of "art versus artifact" remains
an important issue, said Dan Monroe, director of the Peabody Essex
American art was collected not as art, and not really even as artifact,
but really as specimen," he said. "That's why the vast majority
of art collected from indigenous cultures resides in natural history
reason was that flora, fauna, and 'primitive' cultures all were
conceived as being closely aligned. Certainly no one was talking
or thinking about 'native American art.' That view held well into
the Peabody Essex, "we like to make it clear that Native Americans
are here and are still creating art, albeit in very different ways
in some respects than they did in the past, which is precisely what
one would expect," he said, adding, "Cultures can't exist and be
can museums, which is why the Heard's "Home" exhibition includes
room for change. By updating exhibitions, it aims to keep the public
informed about contemporary Native American culture and counter
days, plenty of contemporary works address those stereotypes head
on, like the digital photographs in "Will Wilson: Auto Immune Response,"
part of "Artspeak: New Voices in Contemporary Expression," a show
running through Sept. 30 at the Heard, and "Iconoclash," continuing
through Jan. 16 at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa
"Iconoclash," Marcus Amerman's "Something Wicked" depicts a train
pulling cargo that includes Buffalo Bill, the Lone Ranger and Tonto,
and the American flag, among other objects and personalities. In
the foreground, buffalo are scattering in fear.
train is just American culture coming into this continent and all
the things good, bad and strange it brings," the artist said in
an interview. David Bradley's sculpture "Land O'Fakes" in the same
show confronts fraud in the Indian art market and "the commodification
of Indian culture - the packaging of it in an attractive way to
make money," as the artist puts it. It is not clear whether the
Indian princess he depicts is a Native American or a white woman
dressed in Indian clothing. The logo on the back of the sculpture
reads "Land O'Bucks," and the top mimics the packaging for "Land
O'Lakes" butter. (The company is based in Minnesota, and Mr. Bradley
is a Minnesota Chippewa.)
his paintings, Mr. Bradley reinterprets popular imagery in a native
context. His "To Sleep, Perchance to Dream," for example, is modeled
after Henri Rousseau's "Sleeping Gypsy."
the Indian is sleeping, his homeland is being turned into a huge
tourist attraction - Hollywood on the Rio Grande," the artist said.