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Contemporary American Indian Art: Three Portraits of Native Artists without Masks

Art contemporain amérindien : Trois portraits d’artistes sans masque
Gérard Selbach
p. 47-63

Résumé

L’objet de cet article est de dépeindre et d’interpréter l’art contemporain des artistes amérindiens en divisant leur production artistique et représentation en un triptyque identitaire. Un large groupe d’artistes trouve les racines de leur inspiration dans leurs rituels et traditions spirituelles. Ils insistent sur le caractère sacré de la fabrication de leur poterie et tissage, et leur art est un outil de défense de leur indianité et la preuve que leur culture est pérenne et qu’elle prospère. Un second groupe est activiste et concerné par les problèmes sociaux rencontrés par les Indiens. Ils remettent en cause la façon dont l’histoire a été racontée et prennent pour thèmes de leurs œuvres l’alcoolisme, la toxicomanie et la pauvreté. Un troisième groupe d’artistes cherchent à transcender les frontières artistiques traditionnelles et culturelles en une nouvelle combinatoire mêlant médiums et styles. Ils ne veulent pas être appelés artistes indiens, mais artistes qui se trouvent être Indiens. Ils désirent s’exprimer en tant qu’individus et non en tant que porte-parole de leurs tribus. L’art vidéo, installations et peinture abstraite font partie de leur langage. Les artistes amérindiens présentent une image complexe et aux visages multiples qui rejette les stéréotypes et l’ethnocentrisme dont ils ont été victimes et créent une imagerie plus fidèle à leur réalité. En dépit des pressions exercées par le marché de l’art qui guide leur production, ils font preuve de créativité et explorent leur identité en mutation, tout en reformulant ce que l’on entend par « art indien traditionnel » et métissage culturel.

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  • 1  This article is based on a contribution to Workshop 32 “Aesthetics and Representation in the Engli (...)
  • 2   Cf. Joanna Bigfeather’s interview, infra: “Interviews - Part I: Native Americans and the Arts.”

1Trying to give an overview of contemporary American Indian art1 is a challenge in view of the complexity of the issues raised and the many voices heard and images exhibited. Although Native artists contribute to a very active art scene as proved by the numerous art fairs, galleries and museums devoted to Native art, especially in the Southwest of the United States, they have never been really understood by critics according to Joanna Bigfeather, former director of the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) Museum in Santa Fe, NM.2 She complains about the reviewers’ lack of education to enter Native art and their absence of understanding that has led them to “ignore it”:

  • 3  HUGHES Robert, American Visions, the Epic History of Art in America, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 19 (...)

I want to insist on that point: art critics have never plunged into Native history. So either they do not talk or write about Native art, or if they do talk about it, they do not have the information and so cannot enter the work. There are historical references, social references. The choice of materials and the subjects are linked to our roots they don’t understand. They simply ignore it. Take the book by Robert Hughes: American Visions, the Epic History of Art in America.3 He does not mention Native American art. Is it American art? It isn’t, it is absent from American art history books.

2As the artistic landscape surrounding “Indians” seems sketchy, the objective of this article is to provide some keys to understanding the issues relating to present Native art. It is an attempt at putting it into context and interpreting it by drawing three portraits of the present-day Native American artists. In simple terms, their contemporary art production can be divided up into an identity triptych. The first panel is made up of a large group of artists who turn toward the past, find their roots on the reservation and want to maintain their traditions, rituals and spirituality for inspiration. The second panel comprises a group of Native artists who are socially and politically conscious and react to the world around them by voicing a political message. The third panel is composed of a group of artists who transcend traditional artistic and cultural Indian boundaries to combine multiple forms of mediums and styles in an exercise of self-expression that results in innovative artworks. In analyzing the three artistic trends, we will reflect on the ambivalence between “tradition” and modernity and the duality of Native and Western cultures experienced by most Native artists who are facing a change in identity.

Drawing the lines: a definition of “Native art”

3It is first necessary to describe the background to what is called “Native art” as well as some of the issues connected to it as the lines around the vocabulary used are somewhat blurred and the language is filled with clichés.

  • 4   It is unfortunate that the exhibition Changing Hands: Art Without Reservation 1. Contemporary Nat (...)
  • 5  An exhibition at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, M (...)

4The first issue relates to the use of the very word “art” that does not exist in any Indian languages. Should “Native American art” be referred to as “art” or as “craft”?4 Should museums—white institutions symbolic of cultural hegemony for many Natives—label Indian artifacts as “works of art” or “ethnographic objects”? Historically, to give but one example of what can be considered as art in the Western canons of beauty, one may think of the eleventh-century ceramics representative of the Mimbres people from Southwest New Mexico who left an outstanding tradition of thin black-on-white pottery covered with magical symbols and sophisticated geometric designs.5 At a more recent date, most Indian tribes achieved great craftsmanship, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the making of functional objects like pots, jars, blankets, rugs and baskets, was usually closely connected with their spiritual beliefs. Each region or tribe had its characteristic design, material and decorative elements that can be identified. But, for present-day Native Americans, the artifacts collected by museums should be considered neither as ethnological objects nor as “primitive art” and their background should be clearly described to the public. JoAllyn Archambault, Lakota-Creek, director of American Indian Studies at the National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian) in Washington, D.C., has strong views on the subject:

  • 6   My interview in June 2000, Washington, D.C.

My premise about interpretation of non-Western objects in a museum is that they should be displayed with dignity, be understood as great art, sometimes as world-class art, but that they should also be contextualised, so that people understand about the society and the artists that made these great art objects. In the US the principle of interpretative strategy in art museums when they are writing texts for non-Western objects is most often to decontextualize them because that is considered as appropriate for great art. That explains why you have a public who is by and large totally ignorant of the objects they are looking at, although they might have some familiarity with French Impressionism or Classical and Greek sculpture because it is part of Western European culture and knowledge.6

5This opinion was shared by Lloyd Kiva New (Cherokee, 1916-2002), one of the founders and director of the IAIA in 1962:

  • 7   NEW Lloyd Kiva, “Defining Ourselves,” Native Peoples, February/March 2000, 9.

That there is no word for “art” in tribal languages does not mean that early Native Americans did not create both fine crafts and works of art, or that superfine crafts cannot be classified as art. For proof of the latter, contemplate the fine ceramic works of the internationally famous San Ildefonso potter Maria [Martinez], or bask in the beauty of a classically fine basket created at the turn of the century by Datsolalee (1835-1925) of the Washo tribe in Nevada.7

6The definition of “Indian art” was ultimately provided in 1990 by the Indian Arts and Crafts Act that states:

  • 8   Cf. “How to buy Genuine American Indian Arts and Crafts.”

Any item produced after 1935 that is marketed using terms such as “Indian,” “Native American” or “Alaska Native” must be made by a member of a State or federally-recognized tribe or a certified Indian artisan. A certified Indian artisan is an individual who is certified by the governing of an Indian tribe as a non-member Indian artisan.8

  • 9  Cf. “American Indian Art: Definitions, Law, Inclusion Policy” <http://www.kstrom.net/isk/art, a si (...)
  • 10  GIBSON Daniel, “Copycats Try to Corner Native Arts and Crafts”, Native Peoples, May/June, 1995, 16 (...)

7In other words, the tribes decide who may call him/herself an Indian artist. What he or she produces is consequently art on the condition that he or she be enrolled as a tribal member, the condition being the “ugly blood quantum”9 whose percentage depends on the tribe. For the tribes, it was high time for Congress to intervene as the demand for Native art is huge and both foreign and domestic fakes are a threat to original, “authentic” production. The sales that amount to over $1 billion a year help the local economy greatly.10

8The second important issue relating to Native art is the stereotypes and images generated by American popular culture. The way Indians have been portrayed over time has done a great disservice to tribal identity. According to Robert Hughes:

  • 11  HUGHES Robert, op. cit., 175.

The image of Indians projected by writers and artists was a faithful index of the way white society at large thought about them.11

  • 12  One should also mention the role played by anthropologists in defining the “uncivilized” image of (...)
  • 13  Cf. the permanent exhibition mounted by the High Desert Museum, OR, in 2000: The Indians of the Co (...)
  • 14  GIDLEY Mick, Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian, Incorporated, Cambridge: Cambridge Un (...)

9To the dual conflicting images of “wild” and “noble savage” in the 18th century were added stereotypes of the “vanishing Indian” at the end of the 19th century12 and the “welfare dependent” at a more recent date.13 Another image Western people have of Indians was the creation of the best-known image-maker: Edward S. Curtis who published his twenty volumes of photographs between 1907 and 1930. According to a recent study,14 he was very selective in his treatment of reality and projected pictures of fictional Indians. He even fabricated a romanticized image of Indians, going as far as making costumes. He contributed to building a picturesque and exotic representation and to staging “authenticity” scenes to please tourists eager to discover an ancient and primitive civilization with esoteric and secret ceremonies. Some of his images were turned into postcards used as tourist publicity by the Santa Fe Railroad.

  • 15  SULLIVAN Martin and PARDUE Diana, “Introducing America to Americans,” Native Peoples, Fall/ Winter (...)

10This last reference leads onto the third issue: the emergence and development of an Indian art market officially created in 1922 when the first Southwest Indian Fair opened in Santa Fe. It had in fact started twenty years earlier by two companies, the Santa Fe Railway and the Fred Harvey Company. They had been instrumental not only in developing the tourism industry in the Southwestby building railroad lines, but also by promoting the Native cultures of New Mexico and Arizona.15 On the positive side, one must recognize that they contributed to the survival of local crafts that were threatened with disappearance by bringing visitors in great numbers to the Southwest. But, on the negative side, these tourists bought everything, most often poor-quality exotic “curios” and romantic souvenirs, and more rarely artistic rugs or pottery from the Navajo or Pueblo people. The copying of “traditional” design, shapes and materials was encouraged, restricting the creativity of the craftspeople and artists who had to replicate the same pottery or decoration. The market was totally controlled by Anglos who set the standards and decided what the “typical” and “traditional” Indian styles were to be imitated: that was the birth of tourist art. Herman Schweitzer who managed the Fred Harvey Company’s Indian Department from its creation in 1902, wrote the following letter to Hubbel, a trader, in 1908:

  • 16 Ibidem, 60.

By the way, can’t you arrange to use more of the brown wool in your blankets? People are getting tired of the grey body blankets with black and white designs. We have got to get up something new all the time to keep the public interested so they will buy. This is good business for you as well as us.16

  • 17  BRADLEY Taylor, “Albert Lujan: Entrepreneurial Pueblo Painter of Tourist Art,” American Indian Art (...)

11Natives had also to produce smaller and lighter pottery and baskets which were easily transportable by tourists. Their culture was influenced and affected by the company’s orders, which in turn shaped the tourists’ perception of their culture. This shows that what is commonly called “traditional” refers to what is, to a substantial extent, “traditionally” bought by white visitors. Further evidence of the role played by the market is provided by the works of a Pueblo painter, Albert Lujan (1892-1948), who “unknowingly broke tradition by painting in a realistic, three-dimensional Euro-American style, like ancient buildings at Taos Pueblo, NM. [They] were viewed as unworthy and inauthentic. They did not sell.”17

  • 18  FAUNTLEROY Gussie, “Indian Market Buyer’s Guide 2002,” Southwest Art: Official Indian Market Magaz (...)
  • 19  Quoted by SULLIVAN M. and PARDUE D., op. cit., 64. Describing and analyzing contemporary Native Am (...)

12The situation changed slightly after 1936: a fair was held in the summer, on a weekly basis, during the tourist peak season, and artists could represent themselves, selling their own objects and negotiating their own prices with the buyers. It became possible to establish the authorship of the works of art. The National Museum of American Indian Art and local art guilds—like the Southwestern Association for Indian Artists (SWAIA)—established standards of quality, enforced and updated every year, for each category of arts: jewelry, pottery, sculpture, weaving, carved dolls. The objectives were, and still are, to guarantee “authenticity” and quality, and to educate the public18 who could deal directly with the artists. From the late 60s onwards, the Indian market started to boom and has more than tripled since the 70s. As Zuni scholar Edmund Ladd put it, “we’ve gone from ritual to retail.”19 It seems from various examples that the market economy has on the whole encouraged what American buyers and collectors consider as “traditional” art forms and aesthetics. Quality objects reached high prices at Sotheby’s 2001 summer sales: a Navajo Chief’s blanket estimated at $80,000 sold for about $400,000 and a pot by well-known Maria Martinez who died in 1980, sold for $250,000.

13However, in view of all these market restrictions, norms and stereotypes imposed by buyers, what can contemporary art reveal of Indians’ true identity? What freedom do Native artists really enjoy to express themselves? How far can they create and innovate?

The nature of Indian artistic expression nowadays: three portraits

14The first panel of the triptych is made up of artists who turn toward the past, find their roots in their spirituality, want to maintain what they consider their traditions and their rituals, and take inspiration from these.

15The core of the identity of any Native, whatever his or her tribe, has always been the continuity of his or her spirituality. Some would even state it is undergoing a form of revitalization. True, this group of artists realize that they combine elements from the past and present in their work, but what they fundamentally believe is that art, life and spirituality are indistinguishable and that they participate in a continuum.

  • 20  My interview on 10 / 21 / 2000.

16Indian potters, for example, insist on the sacredness of pottery making: the Spirits and Mother-Earth work through their hands to bring harmony and healing. They honor the elders and return to their grandparents as a source of knowledge and experience. Their art style, the shapes of their pottery, the clay used or the designs drawn, the symbols and iconography applied embody their traditionalism. Tirzah Camacho (Laguna Pueblo), a young potter,20 said that “pottery is ritualistic” and that “[her] grandmother had taught [her] how to coil the clay to make a pot: a symbol of the circle or spiral of life.” The pot has to be made in a day, and every time she went back to her grandmother, the latter would ask her: “Did you touch the clay today?” “Today” is the only time reference known to the elders. Tirzah insists on remaining “humble”: she can express her personal style, but she has no wish to surpass her grandmother’s skill.

  • 21  Cf. infra his interview: “Interviews - Part I.”
  • 22  GIBSON Daniel, “Vernon Haskie: From Lukachukai with Love,” Natives Peoples, August 2001, 48-50.
  • 23 Ibid.

17One of the best-known among the young Navajo jewelers, Vernon Haskie, has the same humility. He has won numerous prizes like the Best of Show at the 2000 Heard Museum Indian Market with a sterling-silver and red coral concho belt, and yet he told me21 that, when he exhibits his jewels at a show, he hides the medals he has received for the prizes under a blanket so as “to not humiliate the other jewelers present at the show.” He shows them only to the clients. The competitive spirit is not yet part of Navajo culture. Collective tribal spirit still prevails although it is changing. “My father was my mentor. He taught me the basics but never forced anything on me”, he said in another interview. “The spirituality of my culture gives me much guidance in making the right decisions and choices. That’s helping me behind the scenes.”22 But he also emphasized experimentation and innovation as the key to achieving success. “You have to expand on your creativity, not limit yourself,” he said, ”you have to venture into new areas, take some chances.”23

  • 24  BENALLY Herbert J., “Navajo Philosophy of Learning and Pedagogy”, Journal of Navajo Education, Fal (...)

18Much the same could be said about the Navajo weavers. The myth of the Spider Woman is still very vivid: she is the one who helps to connect Father-Sky with Mother-Earth to hold the cosmos. In the last twenty years, Indian textiles have evolved from crafts into the category of fine art, and, consequently, the identity of the weaver has increased in importance. Personal styles have emerged from regional styles and leading contemporary weavers now command top prices. But two features remain: humility imposes that 1) “a break should be woven into the border of a rug so the artist may not be cornered or trapped in her own design;” 2) threads should always be left loose to enable continuity, there should be an opening like an endless coil.24

  • 25  McNUTT Jennifer Complo, “Contemporary Native Art Offers Two levels of Experience,” Native Peoples, (...)

19Whatever the tribe, spirituality is still vivid and inspires most artists’ designs. In 1999-2000 Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis, IN, exhibited works by Truman Lowe (Ho-Chunk) and Rick Rivet (Sahtu/Métis). Both artists used the canoe as a common image: for the first, it meant a metaphor for the spiritual journey, for the second the shamanic travel to his original homeland.25 The representation of animals as symbols in any medium is ubiquitous. Indians express a great respect for animals as they share the same universe. The bear, for example, with an arrow on its back, a symbol of strength and protection for Zuni, Hopi and Navajo, is a very common figure in sculptures and jewels. Feathers are also common to many tribes as metaphors for birds (eagles, thunderbirds, hummingbirds), celestial power and a means of connecting with the Spirits in the sky. Eagles are revered for their strength and qualities of hunters by the Lakota who have also initiated the dream catchers that catch the good dreams and destroy the bad ones. These web-like nets have become a pan-Indian artistic expression. Frogs, lizards and dragonflies are creatures emblematic of desert survival and water. The coyote is the joker, the trickster and clown allowed to tell the truth. All these symbols found in various artistic designs are not meant to be simply some forms of imagined reality, but represent glimpses of spiritual reality for the Indian artists.

  • 26  PECINA Ron, “Neil David, Painter and Kachina Doll Carver,” Native Artists, Fall 1999, 26-29.
  • 27  OSTLER Jim, “Zuni Fetishes: Art and Change,” American Indian Art Magazine, Autumn 2000, 38-45.
  • 28  Cf VILLASEÑOR David, Tapestries in Sand. The Spirit of Indian Sandpainting, Happy Camp, CA: Nature (...)

20However, one cannot hide the slow erosion of spirituality as when Zuni carvers manufacture fetishes that had obvious ritual connotations linked to healing. These magical talismans are in high demand and their market has multiplied by twenty in ten years. The same market demand exists for kachina dolls that were used originally to teach youngsters about their Hopi spirits called Koko and ancient stories of “a long time ago” (they have no word for “past”), but only narrated in the private circle of the family, as they are spirit beings who bring blessings. Their names are considered so sacred that are never printed and are associated with Hopi ceremonies.26 That explains why some elders criticized carvers of fetishes and kachinas as they believed such representations should not be exhibited and made public. It was possible to come to some arrangement: as the carvers were bringing in cash, “they were allowed to work outside the social and religious life of the villages,” an accommodation already enjoyed by trading posts. Art is also a way to self-sufficiency and sustainability (the second of the four principles of the Navajo beliefs). These artifacts have now become beautiful collectibles devoid of “religious” meaning, borrowing from the styles of previous generations and from the artists’ own experiences and perspectives.27 One can also refer to the Navajo sandpaintings now glued on plywood and bought as souvenirs by tourists.28

21The gradual introduction of Western secular culture is more striking in the second category of artists.

22A second group of Native artists are socially and politically conscious. They feel activist and part of the protest movement like the American Indian Movement in the 60’s. Their experience of being Native in the contemporary world serves as a source of inspiration.

23They will, for example, question the way history was narrated and redefine who the heroes and the savages were and are. Charlene Teters, who teaches at IAIA Art School, was the only Native to be invited to SITE Santa Fe’s Third International Biennial in 1999. She decided to design a Native response to the Soldiers’ Monument entitled “Obelisk: To the Heroes” erected in 1867 and standing on the central plaza facing the Governor Palace. The full text on one of the panels reads: “To the Heroes who died in various battles with Savage Indians.” Her installation recreated the monument and was placed prominently in front of the New Mexico State Capitol:

  • 29  TETERS Charlene, “Of Heroes and Savages,”  Native Artists, Fall 1999, 10.

It’s an attempt to take advantage of that rare opportunity. Made primarily of adobe —simple earth— it is embedded with personal mementos and artifacts donated by the entire community that refer to this unwritten history [The Long Walk]. The only text on my obelisk are the words “SAVAGES” and “To the Heroes.” The most compelling question it elicits is “Who are the heroes and who are the savages?”29

24Indian artists still keep an Indian style and communicate by making reference to the important social issues they face on the reservations like HIV/AIDS, homelessness, alcoholism, drug addiction, diabetes, unemployment or physical and sexual abuse.

  • 30  SHOWN Harjo Suzan, “Savage Truths: Realities of Indian Life Gently Reveals Harsh Facts Through Art (...)

25Poverty symbolized by Marcus Amerman’s Rez Car (short for reservation car which is a rusted, broken down junker) was a central issue of an exhibition called Savage Truths: Realities of Indian Life held at the IAIA Museum in the fall of 1998. A dozen artists communicated their varied experience. A mixed-medium work by Jean LaMarr (Paiute) integrated a tipi with glass bottles glued to it as warning against the dilution of their culture in alcoholism and the consumer society. Richard Ray Whitman (Yuchi/Pawnee) put up DNA Totems as solid symbols of resistance to scientists, and said his works “stand for the invasion in 1492 that’s now an invasion into our very cells.”30

  • 31  BIGFEATHER Joanna, “Galleries healing communities,” Native Peoples, November-December 2000, 64.

26In a series of provocative exhibitions, these artists have shown they are in a continuous process of adaptation and reaction to the society around them. Their political statements and committed art capture a social life and culture in transition and illustrate a keen awareness of the social problems in their indigenous community that affects in fact all Americans. They explore their identity and spirit while questioning what is meant by “traditional art” and cultural mixing. According to Joanna Bigfeather, “the art executed in these exhibitions are not the pretty works often found in mainstream galleries; rather, they are ‘Native realities’, expressions of the challenges that Native people contend with each day.”31 Hybridization and transculturation are creeping in.

27True, such art is not the easy way-out for Native artists. For it is worth pointing out that mainstream museums would indeed not exhibit such works. Only four contemporary galleries in the United States support them. Jean LaMarr stated in an interview that she refused to apply self-censorship although her works have always been too politically-oriented to be exhibited, except in the San Francisco Bay area or with multicultural Chicano artists in group shows. She felt she could not compromise, even to market her works, a point she found difficult to put across to her students at the IAIA Art School:

  • 32  HILL Rick, Creativity is our Tradition, Santa Fe: IAIA, 1992, 162.

 [The power of the market] is so blatant down here in Santa Fe, and it tells what Indians have to do. I have a problem with my own students. I’m telling them one thing: do what’s coming from you, what you feel. But the Santa Fe market is telling them: do beautiful Indians on top of the hill. And so, who are they to believe? This one person that’s preaching to them all the time about it? Or this market with hundreds of galleries that are selling Indian art that has pretty Indian scenes in it, the humble beaten Indian?32

28A third group of artists try to transcend traditional artistic and cultural boundaries to combine multiple forms of mediums and styles.

  • 33  Read infra the complete transcript: “Interviews - Part I.”

29They want to leave the reservation—geographically and mentally— and live in large cities where the art scene is. They also want to challenge convention by adapting and re-interpreting, by innovating and expressing themselves as individuals and not as spokespersons of their tribes. Video art, installations and performances are part of their language along with abstract painting or sculpture. They intend to sever their links with tribal traditions and background and try to mingle with the dominant culture. But, if well-intentioned commentators insist on the growth in value and diversity of Native American artists, the emancipation from Indian stereotyping is a long and painful process as Joanna Bigfeather discovered. Not liking the kind of art she had seen around Santa Fe, she left to go to the State University of New York Art School, full of expectations.33 She bitterly remembered that “the Art School was such a racist place. When you looked round, you could see Asians, Latinos and African Americans. But when I got into my coursework, there was such narrow understanding of what contemporary art was for the Natives. They expected traditional art, like basketry or pottery. I was in painting and printing. It was a constant struggle. There’s a lot of ignorance in America.” She tried to be an artist in her own right with dozens of group exhibitions in New York and the Southwest on her resume. But her art evolved from a rather traditional form of expression which sold well to an exploration of Indian identity and Native American history which was not market-driven. Therefore her works were no longer selling and she stopped showing them. “Yet, I recognize people have to make a living. It’s a decision they make. If you start doing something out of the market, people stop buying. It may take a lifetime to be recognized, that’s why most have been art teachers, at the IAIA for example.” Robert Nichols cannot agree more. A gallery owner in Santa Fe, specializing in pottery, he has always encouraged artists to find their own style despite the odds, the odds being the marketplace:

  • 34  Quoted in McFADDEN David and TAUBMAN Ellen (Dir.), Changing Hands: Art Without Reservation, 1. Con (...)

It has become apparent to me that “change” has been one of the most important constants throughout the history of pottery of the Southwest. In recent years, however, there has been increasing pressure by the marketplace to keep change within narrow limits. The emphasis tends to be high craftsmanship as an end unto itself rather than as a means to an end, resulting in the stifling of creativity and experimentation.34

  • 35  HICE M., GIBSON D., Poet J. , MOORE M. “Artists of Change”,  Native Peoples, April / May 2000, 50- (...)
  • 36  McFADDEN D. and TAUBMAN E., op. cit., 82.

30Dan Namingha (Hopi/Tewa) seems to be one of the exceptions. He is one of the rare Indian artists who has managed to “bridge the gap between the values of traditional culture and the non-Native world. His works carry ancient messages in contemporary contexts spanning the distance between modern minimalism and ancient abundance.”35 He has struck a chord with art amateurs by exploring both cultures and retaining portions or “fragments” of both traditions. In a sculpture called Cloud Image dated 1996, he tried to get across the idea that Native American culture is being fragmented by Western society, just like the rest of the world by time and change over the centuries.36 His abstract paintings or minimalist sculptures will, for example, re-interpret the ceremonial kachina figures of the Hopi cosmology and express the connections between physical and spiritual realms. They are an invitation to use his works as passageways between the two worlds.

31For most of the other innovators museums seem to be the only places where they can be seen. Achieving visibility is a rare occurrence. Confirming what Joanna Bigfeather had told me, she said in the interview to Southwest Art:

  • 37  HICE, et al., op. cit., 51.

It’s important for people to realize that this art doesn’t belong to Indian people - it belongs to all Americans because it’s part of American history. When non-Native people are able to start connecting with this art, it will humanize Native people and help chip away at the stereotypes that are out there.
I keep hearing over and over again from contemporary Native American artists that they want to be seen as artists who are Indians. They are fighting not to have their work pigeonholed while still recognizing that their framework is different from that of a non-Native artist because they have a whole different culture behind them.37

32However, perception of Indian art is changing among collectors and others active in the art market. The exhibition Changing Hands: Art Without Reservation, 1. Contemporary Native American Art from the Southwest, held at the American Craft Museum in New York in September 2002—the first in a series of three—was evidence of this evolution. The two curators, David R. McFadden and Ellen N. Taubman, referring to this exhibition in the introduction to the catalog, seemed to echo Joanna Bigfeather’s statement:

  • 38  McFADDEN and TAUBMAN, op. cit., 15

From the outset, we recognized that Indian art today cannot be easily pigeonholed within the ethnographic and anthropological matrix. Rather, it has become an increasingly powerful tributary feeding the mainstream of American Art.38

  • 39  Cf. HILLERMAN Tony, Sacred Clowns, New York, Harper Paperbacks, 1993. “I guess you could say they (...)

33The artists exhibited displayed their search for innovation and experiment outside the limited range of traditional Indian representation with the aim of achieving a much broader appeal by expressing feelings common to mankind. One of the best examples was Roxanne Swentzell, a Santa Clara Pueblo sculptor, who shapes figurative bronze or clay figures whose features are most often Indian, but who embody the range of emotions and inner struggles true to every human being. She was inspired by the Pueblo clowns who participate in katchina dances and who through their faces and clowning remind people of their weaknesses or of social and political issues.39 Some characters portrayed the white-striped koshare clowns: in A Question of Balance, a koshare looked perplexed in front of black and white scales. Others made fun of the white lady who became red as she wanted to get a suntan similar to that of Indians or represented a white American flexing his muscles but blindfolded by an American flag in Vulnerable, reflecting on the U.S. vulnerability to terrorism after 9/11. This was her way of apprehending the world and of reacting to the shocking event. Personal experience combined with formal research is also central to Nathan Begaye’s ceramics. A Navajo and IAIA alumnus, he experiments and has devised a highly personal style with unusual forms made up of reconstructed fragments of pots. The exhibition showed Native artists who have become individuals in their own right, turning away from the more restricted stereotypical motifs of the community they have grown up in. Autonomous creativity in the use of colors, innovative design in the choice of shapes and contemporary spirit in the use of mediums have become the hallmark of a lot of present-day Native American artists. The new trend in aesthetics is a metaphor of the contemporary Indian artist and reveals a change in identity.

The long art walk ahead

34Can Native artists create art “without reservation”? Indians do not like a conclusion, even in an essay on art. That would be against their most deeply-rooted beliefs. Only continuity and timeless destiny is on their minds. It underscores the theme of transmittal of traditions through art that is a tool to retain cultural memory, to defend their heritage and to prove that their culture continues to be alive and well. Rick Hill, Tuscarora, IAIA Museum director in 1992, pointed out the special meaning that Indians give to the word “tradition”:

  • 40  HILL Rick, op.cit., 10.

The role of tradition in Indian art is a poorly understood concept. Tradition is commonly thought to be a style, a technique or form of expression that is tied to the past. To Indians it is dynamically expanding, a way of thinking passed on from our ancestors to which we are bound to add our own distinctive patterns.40

35After all, continuity requires flexibility and adaptability, and that is true for the art mediums used or the conceptual approaches for expressing their spirituality and their new experiences. Art is “work in progress” and mirrors an evolving identity. Larry Ahvakana, an IAIA alumnus, is fully aware that change is part of life, hence of art:

  • 41  Quoted by HILL Rick, ibid., 11.

My culture is a living thing. It is not a static or dead way of life but an ever-changing metamorphosis of adaptation. My grandfather was among the generation who first experienced the beginning of adaptation. He taught me that change is not the death of a culture. It is the basic nature of our way of life which I capture in my artwork. The tools may be modern, the materials perhaps foreign, but the final statement would be the same.41

36Art has become a cultural statement for the Natives especially through the evolution of style towards modernity over time.

37Thanks to this overview, we have discovered a multifaceted and complex picture of the Native Americans and their artists as could be expected from such wide-ranging artistic production. What stands out is that, if the exploration by some Indian artists has tried to take to task Indian stereotyping and create a truer and fairer representation of Indians and their culture, artists have somewhat failed in their attempt at stepping out of the imagery that the dominant culture has foisted on them. If their lot has not changed that much since the sixties, the reason is not hard to imagine. The economic power exerted by the art market has made it difficult to resist its incentives. The irony of the market is that it has supported as many traditional practices as it has undermined. Many Indians like to claim that, “if you are not familiar with your past, you can’t determine your future.” In that case, does it mean that their future is “determined” by their past, that their creativity and imagination is penned up within the boundaries imposed by their past and the market? If it is so, then Jean LeMarr would be right: Native Americans are compelled to paint “the good Indians on top of the hill.” After all, just as the Bureau of Indian Affairs provides financial support only to Indians living on reservations, the art market offers an outlet only to those artists who keep the traditions going. The stereotyped representation and the “commodification” of their art are forced upon them.

  • 42  Cf. infra the interview of Harry Walters in “Interviews – Part I.”

38To add a final brushstroke to the broad ambivalent picture and end on a more positive and optimistic note, we have also realized that, on the whole, artists have played a major role: they have been active in avoiding cultural acculturation or dilution. Most have not relinquished their ethnicity and those who are getting the best reviews are those who master cultural interactions and syncretism and who expand upon tradition with contemporary themes or designs. This is a delicate balance to achieve but Native Americans have long been masters in ambivalence and duality.42 Each new generation of artists continues the vital dialogue between fast-changing life experience and artistic expression, between persistence and change, resistance and adaptation. By expressing the Indian spirit in new art forms and representing their cultural heritage in creative visualizations, Indian contemporary artists have helped Natives to retain their identity and contributed to the survival of their culture. They will play a central role in guaranteeing continuity and preparing for the future according to Lloyd Kiva New:

  • 43  NEW Lloyd Kiva, op. cit.,10.

The inescapable pressures of a radically changing world society in the 21st century places Native culture in its greatest state of flux. Native American artists will be needed more than ever in the new millennium to assist in the inevitable cultural changes that lie ahead.43

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Bibliographie

HILL Rick, Creativity Is Our Tradition. Three Decades of Contemporary Indian Art at the IAIA, Santa Fe, NM: IAIA Press, 1992.

McFADDEN David Revere and TAUBMAN Ellen Napiura (ed.), Changing Hands: Art Without Reservation 1. Contemporary Native American Art from the Southwest, London: Merrell and American Craft Museum, 2002.

GIDLEY Mick, Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian, Incorporated, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

HOWARD Kathleen L. and PARDUE Diana F., Inventing the Southwest: The Fred Harvey Company and Native American Art, Flagstaff, Az: Northland Publishing, 1996.

HUGHES Robert, American Visions, the Epic History of Art in America, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.

VILLASEÑOR David, Tapestries in Sand. The Spirit of Indian Sandpainting, Happy Camp, CA: Naturegraph Company Publishers, 1963.

Magazines

American Indian Art Magazine.

Native Peoples.

Southwest Art: Official Indian Market Magazine.

Bibliography: further reading on Native American Arts

BATKIN Jonathan (ed.), Clay People, Santa Fe, NM: The Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, 2001.

COE Ralph T., Lost and Found Traditions. Native American Art 1965-1985, New York, NY: American Federation of Arts, 1986.

DALRYMPLE Larry and McGREEVY Susan Brown, Indian Basketmakers of the Southwest, Santa Fe, NM: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2000.

DIAZ Rosemary, “Speaking with Earth: the Tales of Four Women Potters”, Native Peoples, September/October 2001, 22-27.

DUBIN Lois Sherr, North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment: From Prehistory to the Present, New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, 1999.

GETZWILLER Steve and MANALEY Ray, The Fine Art of Navajo Weaving, Tucson, Az: Ray Manley Publications, 1984.

GRITTON Joy L., The Institute of American Indian Arts: Modernism and U.S. Indian Policy, Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2000.

HOVING Thomas, The Art of Dan Namingha, New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, 2000.

JACKA Jerry and Essary Lois, Beyond Tradition: Contemporary Indian Art and Its Evolution, Flagstaff, AZ: Northland Publishing, 1988.

_______, Beyond Tradition: Contemporary Indian Art and Its Evolution, Flagstaff, Az: Northland Press, 1994.

_______, Art of the Hopi: Contemporary Journeys on Ancient Pathways, Flagstaff, Az: Northland Press, 1998.

KENT Kate Peck, Navajo Weaving: Three Centuries of Change, Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press, 1985.

PEKHAM Steward, From This Earth: The Ancient Art of Pueblo Pottery, Santa Fe, NM: Museum of New Mexico press, 1990.

PENNEY David W., LONGFISH George C., Native American Art, Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, Inc., 1994.

PETERSON Susan, Pottery by American Indian Women: The Legacy of Generations, New York, NY: Abbeville Press, 1995.

REICHARD Gladys A., Navajo Medicine Man Sandpaintings, New York, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1977.

RUSHING W. Jackson III (ed.), Native American Art in the Twentieth Century, New York, NY: Routledge, 1999.

SILBERMAN Arthur, One Hundred Years of Native American Painting, Oklahoma City, OK: Oklahoma Museum of Art, 1978.

TRIMBLE Stephen, Talking with The Clay: the Art of Pueblo Pottery, Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research, 1987.

WADE Edwin L. (ed.), The Arts of the North American Indian: Native Arts in Transition, New York, NY: Hudson Hills, 1986.

WALLO William and PICKARD John, T.C. Cannon, Oklahoma City, OK: Persimmon Hill, 1990.

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Notes

1  This article is based on a contribution to Workshop 32 “Aesthetics and Representation in the English-speaking world” at the ESSE 6 - 2002 Conference held at the Marc Bloch University of Strasbourg, France, on September 2, 2002. Patrick Chezaud, Université Stendhal of Grenoble, France, was the moderator.

2   Cf. Joanna Bigfeather’s interview, infra: “Interviews - Part I: Native Americans and the Arts.”

3  HUGHES Robert, American Visions, the Epic History of Art in America, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.

4   It is unfortunate that the exhibition Changing Hands: Art Without Reservation 1. Contemporary Native American Art from the Southwest (May 9 - September 15, 2002) should have taken place at the American Craft Museum in New York as it reinforces the idea that what Natives create is craft, not art. This viewpoint was not shared by Chuck Dailey, the interim director of the IAIA Museum, Santa Fe, NM, whom I interviewed in October 2002. He thought that, as long Native art is exhibited in New York, whatever the venue, it creates visibility and awareness among the “Anglo” public that benefit Native Art. The exhibition proves the vitality and creativity of Native American artists.

5  An exhibition at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, is devoted to the presentation and interpretation of more than 100 Mimbres ceramic bowls in June-October 2004: Painted by a Distant Hand: Mimbres Pottery of the American Southwest. The designs inspired potters like Maria Martinez and husband Julian from San Ildefonso Pueblo, in the 1920’s and Lucy Lewis from Acoma Pueblo. Emma and Dolores Lewis continue to be inspired by them. Some Natives object to the exhibition of Mimbres bowls as they have been excavated from graves that are sacred places not to be disturbed.

6   My interview in June 2000, Washington, D.C.

7   NEW Lloyd Kiva, “Defining Ourselves,” Native Peoples, February/March 2000, 9.

8   Cf. “How to buy Genuine American Indian Arts and Crafts.”

<http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/online/pubs/products/indianart>, a site visited on  05 / 24 / 2002.

9  Cf. “American Indian Art: Definitions, Law, Inclusion Policy” <http://www.kstrom.net/isk/art>, a site visited on 05 / 24 / 2002.

10  GIBSON Daniel, “Copycats Try to Corner Native Arts and Crafts”, Native Peoples, May/June, 1995, 16-17. He notes that Congress has never provided any funding for the enforcement of the 1990 Act.

11  HUGHES Robert, op. cit., 175.

12  One should also mention the role played by anthropologists in defining the “uncivilized” image of the Natives. Anthropologists like Frank Boaz were instrumental in the collection of skeletons on battlefields and from burial sites. The National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. had 18,000 human remains in 1990 when NAGPRA was passed by Congress. The racial -racist- classification, carried out by anthropologists in the 19th century and now strongly attacked, explains why Native Americans are found in natural history museums next to dinosaurs, animals, insects and flowers and not in the National Museum of American History: the Native Americans are not part of American history, they are a natural species. The exhibits at the NMNH have not been changed since 1955 for lack of funding, according to JoAllyn Archambault.

13  Cf. the permanent exhibition mounted by the High Desert Museum, OR, in 2000: The Indians of the Columbia River Plateau. See in particular a display called “Images and Indians.”

14  GIDLEY Mick, Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian, Incorporated, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

15  SULLIVAN Martin and PARDUE Diana, “Introducing America to Americans,” Native Peoples, Fall/ Winter 1995, 58-64. On 31st September 1995 (to April 1997), the Heard Museum in Phoenix, AZ, opened an exhibition devoted to the influence the Fred Harvey Company had on Native art: Inventing the Southwest: the Fred Harvey Company and Native American Art. HOWARD Kathleen L. and PARDUE Diana F., Inventing the Southwest: The Fred Harvey Company and Native American Art, Flagstaff, Az: Northland Publishing, 1996.

16 Ibidem, 60.

17  BRADLEY Taylor, “Albert Lujan: Entrepreneurial Pueblo Painter of Tourist Art,” American Indian Art Magazine, Autumn 2002, 56.

18  FAUNTLEROY Gussie, “Indian Market Buyer’s Guide 2002,” Southwest Art: Official Indian Market Magazine, August 2002, 211: “The more a buyer knows about the materials and processes used by Indian artists, the more meaningful the Indian Market experience—and the experience of living with Indian art— will be.”

19  Quoted by SULLIVAN M. and PARDUE D., op. cit., 64. Describing and analyzing contemporary Native American art without referring to the art market and its impact on creation would be a total mistake, as we will see infra.

20  My interview on 10 / 21 / 2000.

21  Cf. infra his interview: “Interviews - Part I.”

22  GIBSON Daniel, “Vernon Haskie: From Lukachukai with Love,” Natives Peoples, August 2001, 48-50.

23 Ibid.

24  BENALLY Herbert J., “Navajo Philosophy of Learning and Pedagogy”, Journal of Navajo Education, Fall 1994, 27.

25  McNUTT Jennifer Complo, “Contemporary Native Art Offers Two levels of Experience,” Native Peoples, March/April, 2000, 18-19.

26  PECINA Ron, “Neil David, Painter and Kachina Doll Carver,” Native Artists, Fall 1999, 26-29.

27  OSTLER Jim, “Zuni Fetishes: Art and Change,” American Indian Art Magazine, Autumn 2000, 38-45.

28  Cf VILLASEÑOR David, Tapestries in Sand. The Spirit of Indian Sandpainting, Happy Camp, CA: Naturegraph Company Publishers, 1963.

29  TETERS Charlene, “Of Heroes and Savages,”  Native Artists, Fall 1999, 10.

30  SHOWN Harjo Suzan, “Savage Truths: Realities of Indian Life Gently Reveals Harsh Facts Through Art,” Native Peoples, July/August 1998, 18-22.

31  BIGFEATHER Joanna, “Galleries healing communities,” Native Peoples, November-December 2000, 64.

32  HILL Rick, Creativity is our Tradition, Santa Fe: IAIA, 1992, 162.

33  Read infra the complete transcript: “Interviews - Part I.”

34  Quoted in McFADDEN David and TAUBMAN Ellen (Dir.), Changing Hands: Art Without Reservation, 1. Contemporary Native American Art from the Southwest, London & New York: Merrel and American Craft Museum, 2002, 59.

35  HICE M., GIBSON D., Poet J. , MOORE M. “Artists of Change”,  Native Peoples, April / May 2000, 50-51.

36  McFADDEN D. and TAUBMAN E., op. cit., 82.

37  HICE, et al., op. cit., 51.

38  McFADDEN and TAUBMAN, op. cit., 15

39  Cf. HILLERMAN Tony, Sacred Clowns, New York, Harper Paperbacks, 1993. “I guess you could say they are our ethical police. It’s their job to remind us when we drift away from the way that was taught us. They show us how far short we humans are of the perfection of the spirits.” 207-208.

40  HILL Rick, op.cit., 10.

41  Quoted by HILL Rick, ibid., 11.

42  Cf. infra the interview of Harry Walters in “Interviews – Part I.”

43  NEW Lloyd Kiva, op. cit.,10.

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Gérard Selbach, « Contemporary American Indian Art: Three Portraits of Native Artists without Masks », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. II - n°6 | 2004, 47-63.

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Gérard Selbach, « Contemporary American Indian Art: Three Portraits of Native Artists without Masks », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. II - n°6 | 2004, mis en ligne le 30 octobre 2009, consulté le 12 août 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/2777 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/lisa.2777

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Auteur

Gérard Selbach

Dr. (Paris V, France)Gérard Selbach, assistant professor at the University of Paris 5, France, and researcher at the CERLIS-Paris 5 and the National Scientific Research Center (CNRS), has as a main field of research American art, art museums, Native American museums and museology. Beside publishing articles and contributing to conferences, he has published Les Musées d’art américains: une industrie culturelle (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2000) and is about to release Les Musées amérindiens: du vol du sacré à la métaphore identitaire (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2004). He is also a contemporary art critic with <http://www.paris-art.com>

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