New Exhibit Challenges Notions About Native Art
A new temporary exhibition at the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian in Evanston traces the evolution of Native American Art from ancient times to the present day while spotlighting some of the forces that shaped it.
Organized by the Mitchell Museum, "Changing Views of American Indian Fine Art" opened June 9 and will remain on view through Jan. 6, 2013. The exhibit includes works from the Mitchell's permanent collection and on loan from private collectors.
The exhibit focuses on how developments in traditional art, the tourist trade, and the founding of American Indian art schools led to today's vibrant art market "where Native artists blend cultural traditions with contemporary media to push the boundaries of how we view American Indian art," notes the exhibit's introductory signage.
The exhibit, comprising six thematic sections, is designed to provide a chronological overview of Native American art while challenging visitors' assumptions. The exhibit includes contemporary pieces one might not expect to see in a Native American museum and pieces never before seen at the Mitchell, according to museum officials.
The section titled "A Tradition of Adornment" holds the earliest works in the exhibit: ancient artifacts created for personal, household, and ceremonial use. A surprisingly contemporary-looking Anasazi snake-shaped pot of smoothly coiled, painted clay, dating from about 1200 CE, greets visitors entering the gallery. Other early objects include copper jewelry from the period 8000-500 BCE; glass beadwork; porcupine quillwork; and Pueblo katsina dolls used to teach spiritual beliefs to children.
"American Indian Art Trade" illustrates the development of trading posts and early commercial markets for Indian art and souvenirs starting in the mid-1800s. Some of the items from this period "were considered crafts or souvenir trinkets and not valued as fine art pieces until decades later," according to exhibit materials. On display are Iroquois "whimsies," beaded items with intricate floral and pictorial designs; collectible katsina dolls; baskets; and Southwestern jewelry.
One of several interactive features throughout the exhibit is a set of objects allowing visitors to play the roles of Indian artists and "pawn traders," entrepreneurs who made cash loans to Indian artists, often at exorbitantly high interest rates, while holding their artwork as collateral.
"What Defines American Indian Art?" challenges visitors to set aside preconceived notions and guess which paintings and prints were made by American Indian artists and which were made by others who chose to depict Native people and themes.
"Establishing American Indian Art Schools" focuses on the influence of academies like the Institute for American Indian Art in Santa Fe, N.M., which teach traditional and modern art techniques to emerging artists, some of whom have achieved acclaim in the international art world. Among artists represented are Chicago resident Chris Pappan, who is of Osage, Kaw, Cheyenne River Sioux, and European descent and is a graduate of the institute in Santa Fe.
As in other sections of the exhibit, there are quotes from Native artists that elaborate on the theme. Lloyd Kiva New (Cherokee), co-founder of the Santa Fe institute, is quoted as saying that until the 1960s, Indian artists were discouraged from exploring new methods and media by those who insisted "it spoils the authenticity of the work." He said, "I felt strongly that that was discriminatory."
Traditional styles, modern art media, and unique techniques are on view in the "Modern and Contemporary American Indian Art" section. Visitors will see bronze sculptures by Allan Houser (Chiricahua Apache); dolls by Charlene and Rhonda Holy Bear (Standing Rock Lakota Sioux); a bronze vase from the late 1990s by Christine McHorse (Navajo); modernist paintings by Tony Abeyta (Navajo), and a painting and a large, highly stylized, floor-standing katsina doll by Gregory Lomayesva, who is of Hopi and Spanish descent.
A video slide show in the gallery introduces nine additional contemporary Native artists. These include Brian Jungen, a Canadian of Dunne-za First Nations and Swiss heritage who creates extraordinary sculptures out of mass-produced goods; and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (Flathead Salish), a multiple award-winning painter and printmaker. The video opens with a quote from the late T.C. Cannon, a 20th-century Kiowa artist: "Today ... I really don't think there is such a thing as an Indian painting. People don't call a work by Picasso Spanish painting. They call it a Picasso."
"American Indian Printmaking" includes distinctive, limited-edition stone-cut prints made by Inuit artists of Canada's Cape Dorset, an arts mecca since the mid-20th century. Cape Dorset prints have an international following.
Admission to the exhibit is included with Mitchell Museum admission, which is $5 for adults and $3 for seniors, students, teachers (with valid school ID), and children. Admission is free for Mitchell members and tribal members. Admission is also free on the first Friday of every month.
The independent, nonprofit Mitchell Museum is at 3001 Central St., Evanston. Phone (847) 475-1030. Website: http://www.mitchellmuseum.org.
The organization is partially supported by a grant from the Evanston Arts Council, a city agency supported by the City of Evanston, and the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency.