Reflections: Native Art Across Generations
"One might say that all art is in some way a product of the work and inspiration of the art, and the artists, that preceded it...
But when it comes to the art of indigenous Native American people, the connective tissue is often more easily traced, and the relationships between past and present more interconnected.
These relationships are at the center of Reflections: Native Art Across Generations, an exhibition that runs through January of 2019 at The Fralin Museum of Art. The exhibition, curated by Adriana Greci Green, The Fralin’s first Curator of the Indigenous Arts of the Americas, pairs indigenous Native American works dating back to the 19th century with those done by some of the leading artists in that field today.
“This exhibition is really about connecting these works as a way of highlighting the critically important transmission of ideas and experiences and skilled artistic traditions,” Greci Green said. “Indigenous artists, no matter their medium, are intimately connected to their culture. Whether they are versed in all of the artistic traditions of that culture or not, the strong sense of what these connections mean to them as artists is always there. Some might be members of families that have passed on a particular artistic tradition, such as Tlingit weaving. Others might work in a more contemporary, fine-art medium, but they are still connected to the past and their ancestors. These links are being passed on through a tangible legacy of skills, or an intangible legacy of culture, surrounding the experience of being an indigenous person in North America.”
In order to highlight these intergenerational influences, Greci Green invited some of the foremost indigenous Native American artists in America today to show their work alongside pieces from The Fralin’s own growing collection.
“I started by going through our collection and looking at some of the standout pieces,” she said. “Then I thought about contemporary artists that would connect with the historic works and make them more relevant today.” Greci Green organized the exhibition into four sections. “Four is a really significant number in Indigenous North America. It is the four directions, the four seasons, the four stages of life… there are a lot of ceremonial connections to the number four.” Three of the sections of the exhibition feature a pairing of past and present artists, with the fourth being a grouping of contemporary artists from The Fralin’s collection.
It was very important to Greci Green to bring the artists into a collaborative process when making decisions about pairing the works. “I told all of the artists what I was going to put out and gave them the option of selecting from my small grouping and deciding which pieces would best fit alongside their work. Then I asked them to address the connection in gallery texts that we share for our visitors. They all had something different to say that was really deep and profound.”
When it came to a display of 19th century Kiowa artwork in the collection, which includes miniature and full-size cradle boards and footwear with ornate beadwork from this Plains artistic tradition, Teri Greeves was a natural choice, Greci Green said. “She is one of the foremost Kiowa artists working today.” “Teri is world-famous for her beaded shoes,” Greci Green said, “which she began making over 20 years ago that tell stories and really connect with today’s lived culture and the history it evolved from.”
The high-top tennis shoes displayed in the exhibition, on loan from The Albuquerque Museum, are part of Greeves’ signature style of sneakers and high-heel shoes each with its own visual narrative. In this case, inscribed beaded messages on the shoes state “RezPride” and “RezGirlz” and feature images of young women, on one side playing basketball and on the other dancing in their regalia. “It’s really about the narratives of contemporary femalehood, young women’s experiences that span the tradition of dancing at a traditional pow wow and playing basketball. It really captures the duality of contemporary Native American culture, and what it is to be a young woman within it.”
A spectacular 19th century Apsáalooke (Crow) beaded jacket, decorated with a unique array of shield-shaped flags, from The Fralin collection, is shown with Wendy Red Star’s 2014 print series 1880 Crow Peace Delegation, a work through which we most clearly see the direct connection between history and the times in which we live today. Red Star adds sometimes historical, educational and often wickedly humorous notations on to official government photos of chiefs taken in Washington during peace delegation meetings. We learn the special coding embedded in the chiefs’ clothing and adornments (ermine on leggings denoted a successful war leader), and we learn tidbits of personal history about the men themselves (he had six wives). For Red Star, the project was personal, Greci Green said, also because “She is a descendant of Chief Medicine Crow, who is one of the most famous of the chiefs. His image has been appropriated in so many different commercial formats, and here Wendy is commenting on that appropriation and reclaiming him.”
Tlingit weaver Lily Hope is an artist who continues to work in a traditional weaving style, a skill she learned from her late mother, also a renown weaver. Her child-sized Little Watchman (2017) outfit displayed in the exhibition sits alongside, and borrows from, the artistic traditions of a Chilkat chiefly ceremonial robe. The robe, probably from Alaska, was finger-woven from mountain goat wool and cedar bark. Hope will offer Museum visitors a fascinating window into her craft through a live demonstration in January.
The final of the four sections is highlighted by the words of Kay WakingStick, a Cherokee landscape painter, who has built a career that has gained worldwide acclaim, including a recent review in the New York Times for a national touring retrospective of her work. The exhibition includes her stunning landscape depicting the Bear Paw Mountains in Montana, where in 1877 Chief Joseph famously surrendered with the survivors of his Nez Perce band following a months-long pursuit by the US Army.
The exhibition, Greci Green said, is an example of what she and her colleagues are striving for in terms of highlighting the work of indigenous artists, and comes at a time where indigenous art is making some strides to crossover to more inclusive treatment in museums across the country. “The MET was recently gifted a collection of masterpieces, and for the first time, they are going to put them in their American collection. This is the kind of conversation artists have been engaging in for more than 30 years now – that Native American ArtisAmerican art. And we are glad to be a part of it.”