BY CATHY NOTARNICOLA
What’s New in New, an exhibition of recently acquired works by the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, provides a sampling of the contemporary Native art added over the last twenty years to the museum’s collection of more than 100,000 objects. These pieces, created by thirty-two artists over the last half-century, span from more traditional art to works that push boundaries in politically charged directions. Donated by museum patrons or purchased directly from Native artists by museum staff, these works also reflect the collecting practices of the museum and of other like-minded institutions such as the Institute of American Indian Art (IAIA) in Santa Fe and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington, DC, in not only recognizing artifacts of the distant past but also maintaining a robust commitment to contemporary art defined by individual artists. Contemporary Native artists live in two worlds, that of their cultural ancestry and that of the encroaching and proliferating non-Native world. Over the last half-century, Native art has blazed its way through the international art world, meeting resistance, criticism, and praise. Among IAIA’s first students was Fritz Scholder, Luiseño (1937–2005), who challenged boundaries and questioned the essence of what was Native art. Included in the exhibition is Scholder’s painting of an Acoma pot that was part of a series he executed based on American Indian objects and artifacts housed in museum collections.
Scholder’s early work was met with criticism both from fellow Natives and the world art scene, the former citing stereotypical imagery and the latter finding technique and aesthetics wanting. Eventually the artist’s works gained popularity; at his zenith Scholder reached iconic status. In 2008, a major posthumous retrospective at NMAI received critical acclaim. The exhibition and catalogue, Fritz Scholder: Indian Not Indian, reflect Scholder’s ambivalence about being identified as a Native artist. He was raised off the reservation, and his desire to be recognized simply as an artist resonated throughout his life and work. He was not the first or the last to struggle with what it means to be an Indian artist.
Admirers of traditional Native arts will appreciate objects in the current exhibition such as a pictorial textile by Diné weaver Susie Garcia from Ramah, New Mexico. Garcia created a rug on a traditional upright loom with handspun yarns from local sheep. The rug artfully conveys imagery of a Diné hogan, a weaver at a loom, a flock of sheep, and a pickup truck. It was made using centuries-old methods passed down through generations.
Another example of a traditional form in What’s New in New is a carved blackware pottery jar incised with the avanyu/water serpent by Vickie Martinez Tafoya (Santa Clara). Representing the guardian of water sources, the avanyu spirit is found in ancient petroglyphs on canyon walls throughout the American Southwest. Tafoya gathers her own natural pigments and clay from the hills within the Santa Clara Pueblo and hand coils, shapes, carves, polishes, and fires her pottery using all traditional methods.
Emerging artist Ross Chaney (Osage/Cherokee) creates activist political art. Chaney’s work comments on what it means to be Native American and decries the infringement of civil rights by government. The work draws from imagery of post office wanted posters and military recruitment posters featuring Uncle Sam.
Chaney earned Master of Arts degrees in International Relations from Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan, and in Comparative and Regional Studies of East Asia at American University in Washington, DC. His international artistic style, influenced by Japanese art, is in evidence in the work Free of Expression, part of a series of paintings inspired by the artist’s research on racial profiling by the FBI in the wake of September 11.
Regarding the work What’s Your Number (198—She Makes American Cry), Chaney says, “I was trying to capture a moment in time when technology and our past merge to form the present notion of both our distant and immediate relationship to the FBI and USGovernment.”
Whether your preferences run to more traditional art to art that explores edgy sociopolitical issues, What’s New in New has something for you. And while no single exhibition, artist, or institution can ever provide a single answer to the question of what is Indian art, these new acquisitions present an opportunity for raising it.
What’s New in New was curated by Antonio Chavarria and is on view in the Lloyd Kiva New Gallery at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture through December 30, 2013. A series of lectures by contemporary Native artists is planned.
Cathy Notarnicola earned a Master of Arts degree in American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona and has worked in the curatorial, collections and registration departments at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, the Arizona State Museum, and currently at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture and the Museum of International Folk Art.