Saturday, April 5, 2008

Contemporary Native American Art

The Tucson Museum of Art is the last stop on the tour of a marvelous exhibit of North American native art. The exhibition is second in a three part series called “Changing Hands”, organized and circulated by the Museum of Arts and Design of New York. The 150 pieces of visual art are stunning in their diversity, creativity, and thoughtfulness. I don’t know what’s going to happen to this show after it’s over on May 11, 2008, so maybe you should just go to Tucson and see it while you can.

I had my doubts about a show called Changing Hands: Art Without Reservation- Contemporary Native North American Art from the West, Northwest and Pacific. I expected familiar images and crafts: Kachina dolls, Haida masks, beaded moccasins, carved ivory amulets, painted Kwakiutl cedar chests, and so on. What I found instead took me by surprise.

Beaded Converse tennis shoes? Uncountable tiny blue glass beads are sewn to the canvas to make the shoes blue. Like nearly every piece in this exhibit, this also presents social commentary. These are not your mother’s beaded moccasins! The struggle for Native Americans between tradition and contemporary life is starkly expressed throughout the show.
("Shoes" [The actual title of the piece is a long Indian word I did not write down correctly, so I had to give it my own name. Sorry. Teri Greeves, 1970])

Rant: Photography is not allowed in the exhibit, a stupid rule, it seems to me. I don’t see how the artists’ intellectual property or the museum’s financial investment is threatened by amateur photography. I had to cull these few pictures from the internet. Perhaps the fear is that a blogger will show pictures of the works without proper attribution to the artist, which is exactly what happens when you have to cull pictures from the internet. Rant off.

I can only describe a few of my favorites, although there were literally dozens of mind-bending works. One was a kind of postmodern totem pole. It was a cubist oil painting of totemic images. The painting was curved into a half-cylinder and displayed vertically in a vaguely totem pole shape. It thus had recognizable totemic images in characteristic Northwest Indian style, but portraying multiple perspectives at once, as cubism can do, simulating the experience one would have of actually walking around a real totem pole. What a concept. Was it a totem pole or not? Was it a memory of a totem pole? Was it a translation of a totem pole? Again, past and present are forced to coexist in tightly wound tension.
(Totemic Theory 2, Clarissa Hudson, 2001)

Nearby was a more traditional 6-foot high totem pole carved from cedar. (This show was very well curated, as the placement of these totem-like pieces indicates.) It told a story in symbols, as all totem poles do, but a modern one. A sun figure was on top, represented as a face-like circular mask. Long cedar bark “hair” suggested rainfall, with the water collected in the base, a black wooden chest with faint images of salmon as if seen through translucent water. Between the sun and the water was an Eagle (which is usually on top) and it was doubled over, reaching down to the salmon below. There were a couple of smaller face-like circular images on stems extending from the “shoulders” of the sun. Possibly they represent humanity, and if so, having them the highest images in the totem, higher even than the sun, would further this hierarchical existential portrait. The piece was called “Rainbow People” so that’s a clue (By Tim Paul, 1999).

Near the totems I sneaked a shaky photo of “Cigar Store Indian,”a wooden cigar store Indian with a small black-and-white TV in place of its face, and on the TV were old westerns from the 1950’s – Indians attacking the cavalry and being slaughtered. (Cigar Store Indian. Doug Coffin, 1998)

Etched glass is not a traditional Native artistic medium, yet glass art is pervasive in the Northwest today so it makes sense to see a traditional shamanic amulet represented in glass. The piece is about 12 inches long and 8 inches high, far too large to be an actual amulet, yet the whale-image is covered in animistic spirit-forms. On the reverse side, not shown, is a stylized human being laid out lengthwise, as if it were either an embryo or a mummy. The modern Indian is thus contained entirely within the spiritual images and meanings of the past. Is it the frozen, departed spirit of the Indian, or is it the new Indian spirit about to be reborn from the hard, cold, modern glass? (Shaman's Amulet. Preston Singletary, 2001)

I’m not sure what to make of this large piece representing racks of drying fish, all in aluminum or steel. The circular drying hoops are about 2 meters across and the thousands of tiny metal fish are suspended from the spanning metal "sticks." The drying of the catch on such racks was the “daily bread” and sustenance of traditional people. Now it is merely a geometric abstraction in steel. I’m not sure what it means. (Eric Robertson, The Hub, 2001)

This dish-shaped pattern was called “Pieces of the Puzzle”. It is an attractive piece in its own right, with small images in Northwest Indian colors and motifs from ravens, frogs, whales, and so forth. However others are pure abstractions, just lines and gestures. Yet those abstractions are more than casual “brushstrokes.” Even the simplest of them incorporates the characteristic curves and shapes that define this kind of art, perhaps suggesting how the traditional forms are so deeply embedded in the artist’s being that even a casual gesture reveals them. (Pieces of the Puzzle. Steve Smith, 2004)

There was a surprising amount of anger in this show. Surprising to me, anyway. Of course artists always try to speak from the emotional core of their being, and I would expect reverence for the past, identity confusion, and even ironic statements about modern life. I did not expect the rage, the deep bitterness, expressed in so many pieces. I’m sure that is just my white man’s naivety, but I was genuinely taken aback.

There is also a good deal of humor, but the sense of heartfelt sorrow over what has been lost is palpable. It is a very edgy show in that regard.

One poignant piece seemed un-self-conscious. It had a rather lengthy artist’s statement on the legend card in which she proudly declared that she cared not at all for tradition and was strictly a modern artist. Yet the piece itself was sort of a Chagall-like collocation of dreamy figures and patterns, with small drawings of teepees and huddled people, all on a large scraped hide. (Native Woman's Dreams. Juanita Padhopony, 1994).


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  2. The Indian glass Art work is amazing. Where can I see more of it?