Sunday, April 28, 2024

Is Native American Art Going Mainstream?

Native American Art has always seemed to be somewhat divorced from the mainstream.

There have always been exhibitions presenting ethnic groups of artists but recognizing these artists individually as rightfully belonging in an art museum collection is quite a different matter. My father used to say, “There is no such thing as Jewish Art, it is either art or it is not”.

When I wrote about how museums were now open to the work of Black artists, I heard from the widow of a former director of the Metropolitan Museum that she and her husband had loved that work and why had the curators not called it to their attention at the time.

It is always a matter of getting on to the radar and going viral within the art world. In the last few years, I have perceived a change in regard to Native American art. In my opinion, a milestone was the commissioning of two monumental paintings by Kent Monkman (Canadian Cree) for the Great Hall of the Metropolitan Museum where they made quite a splash for several months starting in December of 2019.

Another indicator of a new level of interest is the New York public art installations by the artist, Rose B. Simpson (Santa Clara Pueblo) who I wrote specifically about a number of years ago.

Simpson’s two-part outdoor work titled “Seed” was commissioned by the Madison Square Park Conservancy art program. It will be on view in two Manhattan locations from April 11 to September 22. One is Madison Square Park, and the other is Inwood Hill Park, which has the last natural forest and salt marsh in Manhattan attracting 150 species of birds and where there are traces of Native American encampments.

Until recently Native American Art was included with other tribal arts in the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas in a department created for the collections of the Rockefeller Museum of Primitive Art that were transferred to the Metropolitan in 1976. Of course, the term “primitive” was subsequently discontinued, but only in 2018 was a gallery created for Native American Art in the Museum’s American Wing. A new position of Associate Curator of Native American Art was established in 2020. Last year the Director declared his desire for cross-fertilization asking the various departments to work together and, in essence, not to stick to their traditional fiefdoms.

In an article in Smithsonian Magazine titled “Who Gets to Define Native American Art,” Susannah Gardiner wrote about Oscar Howe (Yanktonai Dakota) whose letter of protest was part of his retrospective exhibition in 2022 at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in New York. The latter expressed his fury at his abstract work being rejected from the Philbrook Indian Annual Art competition in 1958. Jurors had found his submission of paintings with bold planes of color and jagged abstract shapes did not conform to what Indian art should look like. Needless to say, he objected, and his protest foresaw a change in attitudes. Of course, at the time you could use the word Indian for Native American.

Many Native American artists look back to their troubled history to find their sources but that is true for any artist or writer who draws on their personal and cultural history for inspiration.

This past January the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC closed an exhibition curated by artist Juane Quick-to-see Smith (Citizen of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation), called “The Land Carries our Ancestors“. This exhibition brought together works by an intergenerational group of nearly 50 living Native artists underscoring the self-determination, survivance, and right to self-representation of Indigenous peoples. A wonderful photo from that show expresses the theme. It is by Will Wilson (Navajo), and called “Auto Immune Response 2”. The curators at the National Gallery agreed and acquired the work.

I will leave you with a question. Is there a change in the attitude that art museums have towards Native American art and artists or is it simply that it is being written about more?

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