Sunday, August 29, 2010

Native American Art in Santa Fe

The Museum of Contemporary Native Arts recently had its grand re-opening in Santa Fe after a six month renovation. What I saw there was real cutting edge visual arts, nothing like the beaded-moccasin-and-turquoise-bracelet type of show I half expected.

Among several excellent exhibits in the beautiful new galleries, two really stood out. Alaskan artist Nicholas Galanin had two groups of works, both stunning, in an exhibit called "Oblique Drift." One group was “The Imaginary Indian” series. In these, traditional Tlingit masks are attached to a background of French toile, a wallpaper or curtain pattern showing a repetitive monochromatic drawing of a pastoral scene, such as a group of (white, European) people having a lovely picnic under a tree. In some cases the Indian mask is behind the fabric, smothered by it, visible only in bulging outline. In other examples, the mask is attached to the front of the canvas, but disturbingly, the toile pattern extends over the mask, as if the oblivious picnicking youth in the drawing have infected and spread over the Indian tradition like a fungus (which it did, of course). The effect is very powerful.

Another series from this same artist is called “The Curtis Legacy,” referring to 19th century photographer Edward Curtis who photographed Indians to illustrate the noble savage. Galanin’s pieces are large, almost life-sized color photographs of naked women, many full frontal, bending over backward and literally “in your face” with it, but always covering her own face with a colorful traditional Indian mask; but not even a genuine Tlingit mask, the artist notes on the card. These are manufactured commodity masks from Malaysia, mere tourist souvenirs. (I could find only one cropped sliver of an image from this group on the web, and no photography was allowed in the show). (

The effect of these photographs is a startling and moving objection to the mainstream culture’s objectification of the human body in general, and the Native image in particular, and its desacralizing of Native Americans' own sacred images. The pictures are also a commentary on the globalization of cultures, to the loss of some. While these images are ostensibly humorous and ironic, there is also a great deal of anger in them. I could almost hear in these pictures the artist shouting vulgar, witty epithets to Curtis and the larger white society on the topic of the so-called Noble Savage, curses that would make you cry instead of laugh.

Another artist also showed powerfully evocative works in video, in an exhibit called "Round Up." Torry Mendoza presented a series of a half dozen or so short video works of less than 10 minutes each, in which he confronts, analyzes and excoriates the “The Hollywood Indian,” and the feelings and attitudes that have seeped into the mainstream collective consciousness as a result. In “Kemosabe Version 1.0” he remixes conversational snippets between the Lone Ranger and Tonto (from the television series), against a driving techno beat background. As the catalog says, “He scrutinizes the duo’s relationship by remixing a conversation between the two, revealing a master and servant disposition similar to the disparate relationships assumed by the nation-state with Native nations.”

In “Stupid Fucking White Men” he ridicules Kevin Costner’s wannabe Indian persona in the film, Dances With Wolves, by remixing short clips from Costner’s pseudo-Indian dance around a bonfire. The result is hilarious, but as with Galanin’s work, also deeply, bitterly angry. In Red Man and Savages, Mendoza concatenates short clips from Hollywood films in which white men and women played caricatures of Indian parts, stars such as Charles Bronson, Jack Palance, Burt Lancaster, Lee Van Cleef. The stereotypes are patently ridiculous now, but they weren’t then. A couple of the shorts were less impressionistic and more documentary in style, but all aimed to illustrate Hollywood’s history of degrading stereotypes and outright hostility toward Native Americans (think John Wayne in The Searchers). It was a compelling and moving series of short films that I sat through twice.

There were several other exhibitions of outstanding work but these are the ones that captured my imagination most. I was not able to determine if these exhibits are traveling or permanent, and if traveling (most likely) how long they might be expected to remain at the MoCNA. But anyone who has a feeling for contemporary Native Art should pop over to Santa Fe before it is too late. (You can fly direct into Albuquerque and drive to Santa Fe in an hour).

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