The role of women art-makers in Native communities has gone widely ignored. Now a bold museum show, by and for these women, is shining a light on 1, years of their art. By Tess Thackara. They cast shadows on the ground, creating an ethereal effect. Kelliher-Combs grew up in Nome, where experimenting with scraps of material was a communal activity for Native women, a way to spend time with siblings and elders. It was only at college that she began to understand those experiences from a non-Native perspective — as art.
This perspective on art-making is quite distinct from the individualistic concept of the artist that still haunts the American art world — the lone creator and progenitor of a singular vision. It rests on the premise that the role of women in Native communities has gone widely ignored in the mainstream American art world, and the United States at large.
Organized by Ms. Greeves and Jill Ahlberg Yohe — an associate curator of Native American Art at MIA, and a non-Native — the exhibition has been shepherded along by an all-female advisory panel of 21 Native artists and experts of Indigenous art from across the United States and Canada. The cohort of women that Ms. Greeves and Ms. Yohe assembled represents nations from the Haida of Alaska to the Mohawk of the eastern United States and the Canadian southeast.
In doing so, they may have set an example for indigenizing the curatorial process. Western museums generally rely on a hierarchical structure of curatorial authority, not a consensus-building approach. Greeves, who has been advising American curators on Native art shows for years, said the process has often left her feeling used, and like a token. If you want buy-in from the Native communities, you have to listen to them. The result of inviting a broad constituency of voices, Ms.
Yohe said, is an exhibition that is wide and diverse in scope, in terms of mediums, geographies, themes and generations — and rich in Indigenous knowledge about the narrative and spiritual significance of each object. Several art experts said that the show could help overturn patriarchal attitudes that resonate in the mainstream art world.
With early European colonizers and Eurocentric museums rendering makers anonymous and relegating Native objects to ethnographic displays, objects by women have long been consigned to the lesser category of functional craft rather than the product of largely female skill and ingenuity. With objects set to go on view — a vast array including pots and baskets, photography and performance — the exhibition will outline the artistic achievements of Native women, noting, for example, that they were early creators of abstraction. Hundreds, even thousands, of years before Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman began looking at Native work and became heroes of American abstraction, Indigenous women represented the world in patterns, lines and shapes.
Native men have more generally been the history-keepers, creators of figurative art with a narrative thrust, and carvers of wooden masks and totem poles. The show also tries to answer why Native women have made objects throughout time: to honor their ancestors, to express their cultural values and personal aesthetics, to cultivate relationships with humans and nature, to provide for their communities.
Among the oldest works on view is an ancient Pueblo pot from circa A tailored hunting coat from circa , made by an Innu woman in Labrador, is composed of caribou hide and painted with bands of intricate pink pattern intended to dazzle wild caribou into submission. The exhibition elucidates the innovations that artists brought to tradition.
For instance, Mary Sully, an avant-garde Dakota artist from the 20th century, made jewel-like, kaleidoscopic triptychs on paper that fuse Native American designs with a Western modernist aesthetic. Often, they form abstracted portraits of celebrities. But her approach is contemporary, and her own. It reflects the particular role of women in being fertile purveyors of cultural knowledge. The organizers have taken pains to ensure nothing is included that could create an uncomfortable experience for Native visitors to the museum, who generally understand artworks as living, breathing objects imbued with spirit — which raises a question of whether these objects belong in a Western museum at all.
Among the more troubling encounters, some Native Americans said in interviews, is seeing funerary objects on display, like the ancient pots made by the Mimbres women of New Mexico. These elegant bowls, typically painted white and black and decorated with figurative or abstract designs, were placed over the faces of the deceased and punctured with a spirit hole, commonly believed to be a conduit through which the soul of the dead could escape.
They were never meant to have been removed from the body, yet hundreds of them populate collections across the country, including at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. Greeves said. Earlier this year, an exhibition of Mimbres pottery planned for the Art Institute of Chicago was put on hold indefinitely amid concerns that the organizers had failed to seek out Native voices and perspectives in the creation of the show. Yohe tapped a network of archaeologists and scholars to determine whether there were Mimbres pots that were used in a non-funerary context.
Those inquiries unearthed a pot used in a domestic setting in Utah circa ; painted with a fine abstract pattern, it will appear in the show. That sent the curator to the Cheyenne homelands in Oklahoma to seek their opinion.
Minneapolis has been at the center of a recent controversy surrounding the representation of Native histories and cultural heritage in museums. Durant is non-Native. The work was ultimately removed; its intellectual property was transferred to the Dakota, and it was buried in a secret location. It transports several works from the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden to a spirit world populated by rabbits and a coyote, animals that often play trickster figures in Native stories.
Lured by the plump fruit, her attentions are distracted from the rabbit that lies in front of her, a noose around its neck. Yohe first began to plan an exhibition by and for Native women artists — several board members and artists featured in the show gathered to sell their work or catch up with colleagues. Burke said. With Oklahoma home to dozens of tribal nations, she hopes to make the Philbrook collection more accessible to Native artists and communities, and open up the institution to more Indigenous knowledge.
For the younger generation of Native women artists in the show, it represents an opportunity not only to reclaim their past, but to proclaim their presence in the modern world. At her booth at the Indian Art Fair, Ms. Romero was selling her richly colored photographs of Chemehuevi boys roaming through their homelands of the Southern California desert in feather headdresses and Ray-Bans, or running alongside the giant wind turbines of the San Gorgonio Pass.
When Ms. Romero was studying cultural anthropology at college, she said, her class barely knew that Native peoples still existed. At the MIA, Ms. Romero shows Ms.
Romero said. It is an image that is thoroughly contemporary, a reclamation of the Native female body, and a fusion of Native values with mainstream Western fashion photography.
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