A List of Topics to Discuss other than Jimmie Durham

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There is a storm going on right now about a particular artist, Jimmie Durham. Many people are thoughtfully discussing issues around his identity. It’s an old conversation being rehashed anew. And with more online databases for genealogy, there seems to be a clear answer that no, he’s not a Cherokee descendant. This blog post is NOT about Jimmie Durham. I’ve been called to do interviews on Jimmie Durham and it just makes me cringe. I don’t want to be negative. I don’t want to bash, or call-out, or attack. I also appreciate that so many conscientious Native artists and Native scholars are crafting important, reasoned, and well-researched explanations of the issues and the history of these issues Jimmie Durham has provoked. Thank you to America Meredith, Nancy Mithlo, Ashley Holland, and many, many others. Thank you to students, art writers, academics, for asking about Jimmie Durham. But I don’t want to talk about Jimmie Durham right now. It makes me feel bad. It probably makes Jimmie Durham feel bad, too. It probably makes everyone feel bad and most of us have no choice about it.

I want to change the subject.

I hope the attention and efforts being expended on this topic to lead us to somewhere new and constructive. With that in mind, I made a list of  LIVING tribally enrolled artists who should have a LARGE TRAVELING SOLO Exhibition with a big 300-page catalog with MEATY  scholarly essays (but accessibly written for a general audience) at MAJOR ART MUSEUMS in the US and then traveling internationally:

  • Jaune-Quick-to-See Smith
  • Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie
  • Larry McNeil
  • Bob Haozous
  • Roxanne Swentzell
  • Shan Goshorn
  • Linda Lomahaftewa
  • Joe Feddersen
  • Anita Fields
  • C. Maxx Stevens
  • Edgar Heap of Birds
  • Marie K. Watt
  • James Luna
  • Nicholas Galanin
  • Postcommodity
  • David Bradley
  • Julie Buffalohead
  • Jim Denomie
  • Virgil Ortiz
  • Christie McHorse,
  • Nora Naranjo Morse
  • Wendy Red Star
  • Steven Yazzie
  • Melanie Yazzie,
  • Truman Lowe
  • Jeffrey Gibson
  • Frank Buffalo Hyde

Now, a word about how I populated the list above. The artists above have all had solo exhibitions before, but not a solo exhibition in a large PWI art museum in the US. I also limited this list to US tribally enrolled artists. The artists listed above have strong exhibition histories and have had some good scholarship written about them, but not nearly enough. Most of them have participated in very important international biennials/group exhibitions, but it’s time for a major solo exhibition. I have undoubtedly left people off the list who should be on the list. Please contact me and suggest more people to add.

If you, dear reader, are not looking to mount a major exhibition and are instead looking for issue-driven or thematic topics to discuss in at a dinner party, a bus stop, on that long long roadtrip with your friends, while packing sandwiches in a cooler for that tubing trip down a river, or writing an article for a major newspaper or maybe that hip art blog, here are some suggestions, in no particular order:

  • Let’s examine ties between traditional food practices and artistic practices being revived in tandem. Examples: Lutsel K’e Moose Hide Tanning Camps, including tanning camps in urban areas
  • There is actually a long  indigenous history of what is now being called “Socially Engaged Art.” Here’s a quick definition from wikipedia: “Social practice is an art medium that focuses on engagement through human interaction and social discourse. Since it is people and their relationships that form the medium of such works – rather than a particular process of production – social engagement is not only a part of a work’s organization, execution or continuation, but also an aesthetic in itself: of interaction and development. Socially engaged art aims to create social and/or political change through collaboration with individuals, communities, and institutions in the creation of participatory art. The discipline values the process of a work over any finished product or object.”[1]  Let’s talk about the Native artists and communities collaborating on meaningful aesthetic work and the place of art in community.
  • Let’s discuss the ways in which Native American artists and their artworks serve international diplomacy and sovereignty, from indigenous nation to indigenous nation, from indigenous nation to other world nations, and on behalf of United States diplomacy. This is a conversation going on in Canada right now, but not in the US.
  • What institutions are supporting Native/First Nations artistic production and the furtherance of study and scholarship on the topic? What resources, systems, and new institutions do we need in order to document work being made now so that future scholars have good materials for their research? How can this work be funded in ways that are based in community guidance? How can people learn the skills and ethics necessary to do this well? And how can they be paid a living wage?
  • What do we want the future to be like? How do we get there? How can the arts help?




“Tonto’s Revenge Dance Party” by Tom Huff

detail view of Tom Huff’s “Tonto’s Revenge Dance Party,” 2011.

“Tonto’s Revenge Dance Party” by Tom Huff

A number of exhibitions at Santa Fe’s Museum of Contemporary Native Arts are about to close on July 31st. I’ve seen images of Tom Huff’s piece elsewhere on the web, but took a short video showing the work from all sides while the turntable is in motion. Perhaps this documentation would be useful to a scholar or student interested in the work who did not get to visit the museum in person.

Tom Huff, who is Seneca, created this artwork for the exhibition  Under the Influence – Iroquois Artists at IAIA (1962-2012). IAIA is the acronym for a college in Santa Fe:  Institute for American Indian Art. IAIA began as a two-year college in 1962 and celebrates its 50th Anniversary this year. It has changed a great deal over the years, including growing from a two-year to a four-year college and expanding its campus, acquiring and renovating an historic building into a museum, and building new, state-of-the-art collection storage facilities for its museum, MoCNA.[1]

The exhibition Under the Influence is part of museum programming this year that brings to light some of IAIAs history through the use of artworks in their collection and artworks solicited from former students. Once the current exhibitions come down, 50/50: Fifty Artists, Fifty Years goes up just in time for the 2012 Indian Art Market, on August 17th.

There is a strong sense of very positive regionalism associated with IAIA and its museum. Santa Fe’s art market in general has a strong sense of regionalism. Strong artistic and artisanal practices from the state’s pueblos help maintain that sense of regional identity. The exhibition Under the Influence – Iroquois Artists at IAIA (1962-2012) foregrounds the college’s role as an educational center responsible for bringing together Native American (and First Nations) students from a wide variety tribes and cultural traditions into a shared location. Tom Huff’s turn-table based artwork, titled Tonto’s Revenge Dance Party, has stuck in my mind since seeing the exhibition, not just because it has a central location at the entrance to the exhibition space, but because it has a strong narrative component in addition its moving parts.  The fictional sidekick “Tonto” is currently at the center of debates around the representation of Native peoples through television and movies.[2] As in television and film, the Lone Ranger is the center of the universe. While other parts are in motion and have context, Huff’s Lone Ranger stands immobile – no “ranging” involved. Tonto is represented by a plastic toy Indian  riding a skateboard around the perimeter of the record player’s turntable. The title makes Tonto the center of the action, claiming both revenge (very serious) and dance party. The dance party may actually be equally serious. Reading the text written over the case for the record player reveals a seriousness to the party – putting the “party” into context with the history of IAIA and the history of Native American art. Huff learned stone carving while at IAIA and continues to work with stone as well as mixed media. The text reads in part,


Another section includes a photograph of Allan Houser with the caption “THE GODFATHER OF CONTEMPORARY NATIVE AMERICAN SCULPTURE.”

Tom Huff attended IAIA in 1979 and then earned a BFA from Rhode Island School of Design in 1984. He’s been involved with Atlatl, exhibited his stonework internationally, and curated the exhibition Haudenosaunee Elements at the Everson Museum in Syracuse, NY. Huff was Artist-In-Residence at SUNY Empire State College in 2011.

Tom Huff was only at IAIA for one year, but that year clearly had a lasting impact. If you have the chance to visit MoCNA before Under the Influence closes on July 31st, I highly recommend it. If you can visit the museum again during SWAIA’s 91st Indian Art Market in August, even better! Tom Huff’s Tonto’s Revenge Dance Party is definitely a work worth hunting for, as are many others in the exhibition.

[1] A major resource for the history of IAIA is Joy L. Gritton’s book, The Institute of American Indian Arts: Modernism and U.S. Indian Policy, published in 2000 by University of New Mexico Press. The notes and bibliography are extensive and useful, although the book only covers the inception of the school through 1968. An accounting of the college’s history and analysis of its role in art and education deserves greater attention and scholarship than it has yet received.

[2] The blog Native Appropriations has a number of postings on the subject of Tonto. http://nativeappropriations.blogspot.com/2012/03/why-tonto-matters.html from March 2012 contains links to a number of other articles/blogs related to the subject.

Jordan Bennett – Turning Tables

The Beat Nation exhibition at Vancouver Art Gallery takes up an entire floor of the museum. It is a BIG exhibition. It will take a series of posts to cover it in any detail. The short video clip above shows a piece by artist Jordan Bennett, a Mi’kmaq artist from Newfoundland. Bennet has several works in the exhibition. This particular piece, Turning Tables (2010), is a sound installation made of walnut, spruce, oak, and electronic components. As you will see from the video clip, the turntables actually turn and generate. Only one turntable was in operation during the video recording. The needle seems to pick up patterns in the wood surface, providing a rhythmic hiss and pop. The group exhibition ties together music and contemporary aboriginal art, so the overall soundscape is significant. Bennett’s contribution to the audio aura is subtle – the comparatively quiet installation entices people to walk the length of the gallery to approach it and listen closely. The second turntable plays the sound of the artist practicing Mi’kmaq language lessons, but it only operated intermittently during the opening events on February 24-25, 2011.

For more on the exhibition, please visit the websites for the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Beat Nation website, and Jordan Bennett’s website. All links open in a separate window.

Vancouver Art Gallery

Vancouver Art Gallery

History of Native American Fashion

Here is a 45 minute video of Jessica Metcalfe speaking about the history of Native American high fashion. She provides an excellent background on recent history of Native clothing and Native designers in fashion. She has done ground-breaking work on the topic and her presentation in the video is excellent. even if you are primarily interested in fine art or Native American material culture, you will find her presentation relevant and interesting. Some designers/artists featured in the lecture:Lloyd Kiva New, Margaret Wood, Wendy Ponca, Patricia Michaels, Virgil Ortiz, and more.

Jessica Metcalfe’s work, as shown in the video above, addresses gender issues, formal and symbolic elements, materials, and intersections between fashion, art, and technology. Jessica Metcalfe holds a doctoral degree in American Indian Studies from University of Arizona and currently holds a postdoctoral fellowship from University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. She also writes a successful blog about Native American fashion, called Beyond Buckskin. The lecture took place January 19th at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, NM. Having her lecture available on the web is a great resource!

Sonya Kelliher-Combs and Nadia Myre at NMAI’s Heye Center in NYC

Sonya Kelliher-Combs, Common Thread, 2010, reindeer and sheep rawhide. On display at the Heye Center, New York City

There is a review of the exhibition “Hide: Skin as Material and Metaphor,” published in American Craft Magazine – and it’s worth reading. I am familiar with the work of both artists and would love to go see the exhibition… but it’s all the way in NYC and I’m all the way on the left coast. I first saw Kelliher-Combs work when she spoke at the Native American Art Studies conference in Alaska a couple years ago. Some of her work was in an exhibition at a local gallery there in Fairbanks, so I made a visit to see the work in person. It definitely looks better in person than in photographs. To see more of Nadia Myre’s work, here is a link to the artist’s website: http://www.nadiamyre.com/Nadia_Myre/home.html

Here is an extended quote from the exhibition review:

“Animal skins-hides-have played an important role in traditional Native American culture and identity, and the National Museum of the American Indian has regularly exhibited such venerable objects as beaded deerskin garments and paintings on buffalo hide. But this two-part exhibition, curated by Kathleen Ash-Milby, is not about tradition. Contemporary artists who are known in the art world but retain strong ties to their Native communities were invited to address skin as an actual art material and as a vehicle for comments on a range of social issues. The first part highlights two makers known for multimedia work who find in skin or its representation a medium for revealing personal statements in ways that are simultaneously sophisticated and primal.

Alaskan-born Sonya Kelliher-Combs (Inupiaq/Athabascan) combines organic and synthetic materials in works that convey intimacy in their tactility, yet are baffling in their hidden meanings.

Unlike Kelliher-Combs, Nadia Myre (Anishinaabe), an artist living in Montreal, does not use organic materials to comment on skin. Her preoccupation is scars, and more than half of her part of the exhibit is devoted to The Scar Project, a communal work. Since 2005, Myre has held workshops in which she provides participants with 10-inch-square canvases and invites them to render their own scars-bodily or mental-by cutting and “suturing” the raw cloth. The 240 canvases (out of some 500 in the project) are arranged on both sides of a large gallery.”

To read the entire review by Beverly Sanders, please click HERE

 The exhibition is on display until August 1st. Beginning September 1st, the theme of hide continues with a selection of photographs titled “Showing Skin” and work by Michael Belmore. For more info about the exhibition CLICK HERE. 

For information on visiting the George Gustave Heye Center, National Museum of the American Indian, located at One Bowling Green in New York City, CLICK HERE.

All links open in a new window.

By the way, anybody in NYC seen this show? What do you think?