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"Art in 2 Worlds" fails in its mission to break all stereotypes about Native-American art.

Beyond the Sand Painting


The press release for the current exhibition at the University of Richmond's Marsh Art Gallery, "Art in 2 Worlds," boldly states: "Throw away every stereotype concerning Native-American art. The gallery is about to redefine how you view contemporary Native-American fine art." It is significant that the organizers of this show rather presumptuously assume that the public has stereotypical ideas regarding Native-American art — perhaps they are suggesting that all that comes to mind are such conventional images as tepees, sand paintings, buffalo hides and moccasins. While the show boasts of its ability to make one rethink one's definition of contemporary Native-American art, the rather uncanny thing is that, to a large extent, this exhibition does just the opposite.

Organized by the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Ariz., "Art in 2 Worlds" draws its collection from invitational exhibitions of Native-American art from 1983 through 1997. A combination of paintings, prints, sculpture and installations by 48 artists, the original premise of such an exhibition was to showcase contemporary art by Native-American artists in a fine-art format rather than in an anthropological model. As the title suggests, these artists are dealing with cultural identity issues in the struggle between their native traditions and contemporary American society — a struggle of assimilation and hybridity that often serves as the creative force behind their art.

One problem with such a specifically themed show is that it perhaps marginalizes Native-American artists even further. Is their art not strong enough to be integrated into broader contemporary art exhibitions? Is there an essentially "Indian" quality to these works that confirms their need to be segregated from the rest of art? These are complex and highly contested issues that contribute to current debates on syncretism, essentialism and postcolonial studies.

The sculpture and installations are the highlights of "Art in 2 Worlds." It is in three dimensions that these artists demonstrate innovation and creativity in exploring their dual cultural existence. Nora Naranjo-Morse's "Sugared Up: Commodity Waffle" is a large mixed-media floor piece that questions the system of government-surplus food programs and Pueblo life. Composed of a dirt grid that suggests both traditional farming technique and frozen waffles, the work explores the culinary assimilation of processed food commodities into Native-American diets through a USDA program. To decode her work, the artist provides a key that aids in understanding its strong social and political message.

Another powerful piece is Leonard Harman's "Karma Burner," a 6-foot concrete pillar that evokes traditional Native-American incense burners, but with a sterile, postmodern coldness reminiscent of city sewer pipes.

One particular point — perhaps this is simply my own bias speaking — is that decorating trends of the 1980s have in many ways depreciated my ability to view some of the works in this exhibition critically. I recall the "Santa Fe look" in home décor that included cactus planters, howling coyote motifs and Georgia O'Keefe prints. When I look at such paintings as Linda Lomahaftewa's "New Mexico Sunset" or Theodore Villa's "Sun Bonnet," a watercolor of a dripping feathered headdress, I cannot help but be transported to a 1985 suburban family room.

While the exhibition is certainly worth a viewing and demonstrates considerable effort by the organizers to shed light on current Native-American art and issues, I'm not sure if it does indeed efface all stereotypes. While many works do reveal a desire to move beyond self-conscious traditional art forms to a broader art that mediates their dual cultural identity, just as many do not. Whether one wants to see this as a weakness of the show or not is, perhaps, a matter of

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