Contemporary Native American — or American Indian — art as a category is a challenging description that raises questions of identity and authenticity.
The recent controversy surrounding Jimmie Durham's Cherokee heritage when his retrospective, "Jimmie Durham: at the Center of the World," appeared at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis is just one example of the contested issue of authenticity. After speaking with Native Americans, the Walker Art Center added to its website and exhibition wall that while Durham is not recognized as a citizen of the three Cherokee Nations, the artist "self-identifies as Cherokee."
"Hear My Voice: Native American Art of the Past and Present," in the Evans Court Gallery at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, considers another dialogue surrounding Native American identity" the complex conversation between objects from the past — the oldest dates to 400 A.D. — and those made in the present by Native American artists.
The exhibition features baskets, pottery, textiles, and other three-dimensional sculpture as well as photographs, paintings, and audio recordings. The gallery is divided by scrim walls into three categories: artist and nature, artist and community, and artist and outsider. The use of scrims rather than temporary walls is effective, especially when conceptually thinking about the subtle differences that separate people across the centuries.
Sixty percent of the works are from the museum's permanent collection and the others have been loaned by institutions including the Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia and the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William and Mary, or private collections. Johanna Minich, organizer of "Hear My Voice" and the VMFA's assistant curator of native American art, acknowledges the complicated issues.
"It becomes a question of how do we define native art and for each artist that is a different answer," she explains. "Many of these artists think of themselves as first and foremost contemporary artists. But it's important to know the contextual history behind these works that create a long historical thread which links them to native histories."
Holly Wilson's "Bloodline: the Matriarchs" (2017) a plank of cedar with small, elongated bronze figures in the style of Alberto Giacometti, is an interpretation of an historical thread that tells the genealogy of the artist's own family. "Autobiograffitipi" (2012) by Thomas Poolaw, a painted tepee in monochrome black and white, hangs across from Wilson's relief sculpture. The graffiti motifs on the canvas, which pair military dog tags, the words "Quantico" and "Lejeune," and the phrase "sooner born and sooner bred and when I die I'm sooner dead" with the words "Tulsa," "under Oklahoma stars," and the artist's birth date, offers a mash-up of colliding worlds. Together, Wilson's and Poolaw's works at the entrance of the exhibition make a compelling opening statement.
The exhibition is less compelling in the center of the first room. There are exceptions, including D.Y. Begay's woven textile, "Dah ilst'l 6 Bizaad (Weaving's Voice)" (2017) or Juanta Quick-to-see-Smith's encaustic painting, "Taos" (1989) but these are placed along the back wall leaving a large open space in the center of the room that is passed over. Perhaps this is because the room showcases mostly historical works, including "War Shirt," 1850-1880, or contemporary works such as Jeremy Frey's "Deception" (2014) that more closely mimic traditional forms of American Indian crafts and textiles. Or maybe it's the low lighting, which brings to mind dusty ethnographic dioramas in a natural history museum. The lighting as a whole could be raised throughout the exhibition.
Nevertheless, the exhibition is most successful when historical objects, traditions, and processes are reactivated and reinterpreted by living artists for new audiences. For example, in the last room, Virgil Ortiz's "Aeronauts: Steu and Cuda" (2014) is made from traditional pottery techniques. Ortiz has activated the traditional technique by including a didactic narrative that tells the story of the aeronauts, 19 figures that are actors in Ortiz's story that recasts the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 into the year 2180.
Also, Wendy Red Star's "Four Seasons: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter" (2006) a series of framed photographs speak to the nature of storytelling, tradition and identity. Dressed in traditional Crow textiles but standing in artificial landscapes — notice the blown-up deer — Red Star expertly negotiates notions of identity and authenticity to ask "What is real? It is a rhetorical question with no answer, asked to continue a dialogue that seeks not an answer to the question of native art but rather an opening up of its possibilities. S
"Hear My Voice: Native American Art of the Past and Present" runs through Nov. 26 in the Evans Court Gallery at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. A family day is scheduled for Oct. 14. The exhibition then travels to the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley and the Taubman Museum of Art.