Published: October 1, 2019
By Kate Eagen Johnson
NASHVILLE, TENN. – It all started at the 2013 Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair and Market in Phoenix when Teri Greeves was joined in her booth by her friend and colleague Jill Ahlberg Yohe. As the women sat and talked, their conversation turned to a conundrum. If the majority of Native art had been made by women, why was it that no American art museum had ever mounted an exhibition devoted to Native female artists? Not long after, Yohe, the associate curator of Native American Art at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, asked Greeves, a beadwork artist, independent curator and member of the Kiowa Nation, to help her remedy the situation. The exhibition they co-curated is nothing short of revolutionary.
“Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists” is the first major exhibition devoted to these underappreciated artmakers, past and present, representing Indian communities across North America. After an acclaimed premier at the Minneapolis Institute of Art earlier this year, the exhibition makes its way to the Frist Art Museum in Nashville where it will be on view from September 27 through January 12.
In the accompanying catalog, Greeves explained the philosophy underpinning the exhibition. “Attached to the home I was raised in on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming was a trading post owned and managed by my mother, Jeri Ah-be-hill. It was there, surrounded by the beauty and depth of Native material culture, that I learned my first lessons about Native art. My mother had a passion not only for Indigenous arts but specifically for the arts of Native women, which she collected, researched and shared with my sister and me. That the canons used by contemporary American Indian artists are the canons built by generations of Native women was implicitly understood and accepted by the Native communities I grew up in. When people came to sell their work to my mother at the trading post, it was mostly women who were the makers. This awareness was embedded in our cultures: women not only made the art that helped our people understand who they were; they were guided by longstanding protocols and norms that made art production by women commonplace.”
When selecting the more than 100 riveting art objects on display, the curatorial team took a broad view regarding time, geography, media, technique, style and intent. Setting aside contemporary works for a moment, the exhibition’s range can be seen in a pottery bowl with swirling decoration created by a Hohokam artist in the present-day Southwest sometime between 900 and 1200, an elaborately painted caribou-hide hunting jacket fashioned by an Innu (Naskapi) artist in eastern Canada about 1750, the circa 1872 marble sculpture “The Old Arrow Maker” by academically trained Edmonia Lewis who spent much of her career in Rome, and a lidded container of twining and porcupine quills woven by Elizabeth Hickox (Wiyot) about 1924 in a style associated with the Lower Klamath River area of California, one of 90 baskets she made for a Native arts dealer.
The gestation and birth of the exhibition and catalog was an innovative and significant act in itself. The cooperative approach involved the co-curators, one Native and one non-Native, partnering with an advisory board of 21 female Native artists and Native and non-Native scholars. Board members wielded considerable decision-making power regarding the objects chosen and the ways they would be presented. The exhibition’s organizing themes of legacy, relationships and power emerged from their discussions. Advisory board members also contributed to the catalog. Participating artist Jolene Rickard (Tuscarora) observed, “I see this exhibit in this way. That there is a kind of wonderful wildness to its curatorial process.”
“Hearts of Our People” is a reaction to attitudes and methods viewed as long dominant in the sphere of Native American arts scholarship, collecting and exhibition. The project pushes back on a specimen-driven approach seen as insensitive to individual makers, their communities and their collective beliefs and practices. Rejected in the strongest possible terms are the deep-seated ideas that the archetypal artist is a male, academically trained, “Lone Genius” and that the proper place for exhibiting Native American objects is a natural history, rather than art, museum. The question of who gets to speak for these artmakers and their art is posed and answered.
Instead of demanding curatorial authority, the co-curators chose a different mode of engagement with people and objects. In the catalog, Yohe related an instructive story about a warrior shirt she was desperate to include in “Hearts of Our People.” She imagined that the shirt with its extraordinary quillwork ornamentation would be one of the star objects. Little was known about the shirt’s history other than the fact that it had entered the collection of the National Museum of Natural History in 1894 and was thought to be Cheyenne. As a sign of respect, Yohe traveled to a meeting of Cheyenne chiefs and Cheyenne Society members to ask their approval to exhibit the shirt. The men deliberated, and Yohe was informed that they did not want her to display it. Their reasons included concern about the shirt’s unknown potency. Yohe came to a fuller understanding of what the shirt meant to community members and honored their wish.
The curatorial team was not interested in establishing hierarchies regarding craft versus fine art, objects made for sale to non-Natives versus art made for the community, or the importance of one artist over another based on DNA makeup, life story, method of study, technique or style. Paramount in this project was recognizing individual female artists through the centuries. So too was providing a platform for Native women artists to express their views. They do this via exhibition labels (in both English and the artist’s Native language), video interviews incorporated into the exhibition, and essays, poems and “In Focus” discussion pieces contained in the catalog.
Most of the exceptional contemporary works in “Hearts of Our People” reference the past in some manner – reverentially, ironically, sorrowfully, playfully – in some cases, multiple ways within the same object. Certain objects are overt feminist statements about how Indian women suffered yet endured and even flourished. For many, art-making provided a way for women to survive hard times, both emotionally and financially. It is clear that long-lived artistic cultures and traditions continue to serve and inspire.
“The Next Generation – Carriers of Culture,” a black ash and sweetgrass basket in the shape of a pregnant woman’s torso created by Cherish Parrish (Odawa/Potawatomi), epitomizes a major message of the exhibition. Parrish described the “life-size” art container as about “pregnancy, and motherhood and passing on, being a carrier of culture really, because that’s what you are, as a Native woman especially.” Traditional beadwork and quillwork artist Jessa Rae Growing Thunder (Dakota/Nakoda) echoed the sentiment when she stated that Native women “are history keepers. They carry our history. They carry our culture, our languages, our ceremonies. Our women are powerful.”
Frist Art Museum curator Katie Delmez, who oversaw the installation of “Hearts of Our People” at the Nashville institution, called attention to artworks at the beginning and the end of the exhibition. At the start, Rose B. Simpson’s “Maria,” a personalized 1985 Chevy El Camino, is paired with a Maria Martinez blackware pot. Delmez characterized “Maria,” the El Camino, as a beautiful embodiment of legacy, an example of how Native American artists can pay homage to their artistic lineage without being stuck in the past by reinterpreting for the current day. Delmez explained that Simpson grew up in Sante Fe and at the Santa Clara Pueblo and so was very familiar with the blackware pottery of San Ildefonso Pueblo potter Maria Martinez. An artist as well as a car mechanic, Simpson decorated the exterior and interior of her vehicle in the style of the famous potter’s black-on-black ceramics. Since men often use El Caminos for work and also for the male pastime of low-riding, Delmez considers Simpson’s Martinez-inspired customization illustrative of the empowerment of women as well as the process of “recontextualizing.”
The exhibition concludes with a shadow piece titled “Bax’ẃana’tsi: The Container for Souls” by Marianne Nicolson (Kwakwaka’wakw, Dzawa̱da̱ʼenux̱w First Nations) featuring photographic images of the artist’s mother and aunt at St Michael’s Residential School in Alert Bay, British Columbia, juxtaposed with traditional designs. Terming this 2006 work as “very powerful,” Delmez reflected upon the exhibition overall as provoking “intense, difficult, challenging but important dialogue.”
“Hearts of Our People” taps into the river of creativity that unites Native women over time, with shared values, rituals, techniques and symbols connecting the generations. This collaborative and more inclusive approach to the presentation of Native American arts has been a long time coming. The catalog is required reading for anyone involved with the study, acquisition, exhibition, preservation or interpretation of Native American material culture. Listen to these artists as you wonder at their art.
In summary, “Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists” will run from September 27 through January 12 at the Frist Art Museum, 919 Broadway, Nashville, Tenn. For information, www.fristartmuseum.org or 615-244-3340.
The exhibition will then be on view at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, from February 21 through May 17, and at the Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, Okla., from June 28 until September 20.
Jill Ahlberg Yohe and Teri Greeves edited the accompanying catalog, Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists, published by the Minneapolis Institute of Art in association with the University of Washington Press, 2019.
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