The “A” Word

Anna Tsouhlarakis, “Aesthetically Speaking I”, 2011. Inkjet print. Courtesy of the artist.

“Whenever the term ‘ authentic’ is used in aesthetics, a good first question to ask is, Authentic as opposed to what?” –Denis Dutton[1]

SWAIA is hosting a series of panel discussions this summer on the subject of quality in current Native American art. How is quality discussed in relationship to art in general? What additional aspects of “quality” come to light when the conversation is about quality in art created by Native American artists? How can we talk about quality sensitively, collaboratively, and productively?

In a fundamental manner, talking about quality involves talking about how we make critical judgments – assessments of value, of the degree of excellence of an art object. The description of the first session, which takes place tonight (Thursday, July 12, 2012) at Collected Works bookstore in Santa Fe, sets up “authenticity” as one of the first determinants of “quality.”

A discussion of “authenticity” could go in numerous directions. I will use a passage from philosopher Denis Dutton to identify some distinctions in the use of the term authenticity: “Despite the widely different contexts in which the authentic/inauthentic is applied in aesthetics, the distinction nevertheless tends to form around two broad categories of sense. First, works of art can possess what we may call nominal authenticity, defined simply as the correct identification of the origins, authorship, or provenance of an object, ensuring, as the term implies, that an object of aesthetic experience is properly named. However, the concept of authenticity often connotes something else, having to do with an object’s character as a true expression of an individual’s or a society’s values and beliefs. This second sense of authenticity can be called expressive authenticity.”[2]

Nominal authenticity therefore involves verifying the identity of the artist, and in the case of Native American art, the tribal affiliations of the artist. Expressive authenticity includes consideration of cultural authenticity, though interest in this this type of authenticity has potentially negative ramifications when analysis of cultural authenticity is influenced by racism, nationalist narratives, and/or cross-cultural misunderstandings.

From the point of view of artists, we might consider the assertion that artistic value is dependent upon whether or not an artwork expresses the authentic values of its maker, especially when those values are also shared by the artist’s immediate community.[3] How “immediate community” gets defined is absolutely crucial for Native artists.

I started this essay with the artwork Aesthetically Speaking I by Anna Tsouhlarakis[4] because it very graphically communicates the experience of carrying on a dialogue about art. The complex visual patterns in the speech balloons convey both more and less to us as viewers than conventional text-filled speech balloons. The body language of the figures indicate one person is speaking earnestly and the other is listening, perhaps with some confusion or skepticism. The contents of their speech balloons appear to be somewhat in opposition, implied by the strong diagonal lines and the hierarchical placement of the two speech balloons. The differences between the contents of the balloons may initially leap out at a viewer, but the two patterns share some features in common. Both are organized in bands of parallel lines and contain repeated geometric patterns. The patterns take up the totality of the field for speech. Each elliptical form shows that the women are discussing a symbol arranged into a pattern, a specific context, not just a symbol in isolation. I am using this artwork to tease out relationships between discourse, interdependent complexity, formal relationships, and categorical distinctions we attempt to make around indigenous art.

Nancy Blomberg, curator for Denver Art Museum wrote in her introduction for the book [Re]inventing the Wheel, “If we accept American Indian art as a valid category for scholarly study, then it must no longer be studied solely in isolation––for it was never created in isolation. American Indian art did not develop in a vacuum. There were many, many influences among different tribes––and from non-Indians. We have all been complicit in a false narrative of purity, immutable tradition, and isolation. We must acknowledge and celebrate the complexities of cross-cultural exchange, because the Taos School, the Hudson River School, and the Santa Fe Studio School of artists did not develop in isolation. Our segregation of American Indian art has not raised awareness; instead we have unwittingly fragmented a common narrative to the detriment of the narrative.”[5]

On that note, SWAIA is bringing together panels of speakers to address “quality” in art. The first panel includes the following: Deborah Jojola (Isleta), Matthew Martinez (Ohkay Owingeh), America Meredith (Cherokee),  Alex Pena (Comanche) and Cannupa Hanska (Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota, Austrian, Norwegian).

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Event Announcement from SWAIA:

Authenticity in Native Arts, Lecture Series: What does “quality” mean?

July 12, 2012 6:00 pm, Collected Works Bookstore & Coffeehouse 202 Galisteo St. Santa Fe

Free Admission. From its state flag and license plates to the romanticized ideology of the southwest, New Mexico is immersed in Native cultural influences; indeed, Native art is its central identity. With such a broad platform and visibility, the ubiquity and sale of Native art has the potential to be highly lucrative. SWAIA is producing a series of lectures that address these issues directly. As the producer of the Santa Fe Indian Market, SWAIA is the authority on authenticity issues in the Native art world. With panelists including artists, art dealers and experts, the lectures provide a broad and up to date view of the dialogue surrounding these controversial topics.


[1] Denis Dutton, “Authenticity in Art,” in The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics, ed. Jerrold Levinson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003). Also available online at www.denisdutton.com/authenticity.htm

[4] More works from Tsouhlarakis’s Aesthetics series on can be seen in the catalogue We Are Here: The Eiteljorg Contemporary Art Fellowship, 2011, pp. 84-89. Additionally, an installation work, titled “Edges of the Ephemeral,” is on exhibition at Museum of Contemporary Native Art in Santa Fe until September 15th, 2012.

[5] Nancy J. Blomberg, “Advancing the Dialogue,” in [Re]inventing the Wheel: Advancing the Dialogue on Contemporary American Indian Art, ed. Nancy J. Blomberg (Denver: Denver Art Museum, 2005) pp. 19-24.


Alicia Marie Rencountre-Da Silva installation May 25, 2012 at MoCNA

Alicia Marie Rencountre-Da Silva’s installation “Song to Water” on view at IAIA’s Museum of Contemporary Art beginning May 25, 2012

Alicia Marie Rencountre – Da Silva’s new installation, titled Song to Water, was completed on-site today at IAIA’s Museum of Contemporary Native Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It is a contemplative piece set within a sculpture alcove at the museum. The artist created a willow hoop hung with prayer ties. Materials are provided for visitors to create additional prayer ties, which the artist will then add to the framework. During regular operating hours, the installation also includes a sound element: a collaborative song by the artist and musician Daniel John Pauli.

Also Opening Friday, May 25 2012 from 5-7pm: alumnI alumnUS, and documentary short film The Humble. The museum is located in downtown Santa Fe, New Mexico at 108 Cathedral Place, one block east of the historic Santa Fe Plaza and directly across from St. Francis Cathedral Basilica.

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

Are You Ready for Beat Nation?

"Beat Nation: Hip Hop as Indigenous Culture" and stickers I found inside the catalog.

Tonight (Friday, February 24, 2012) is the opening of the exhibition Beat Nation: Hip Hop as Indigenous Culture at the prestigious Vancouver Art Gallery. The exhibition grew out of a smaller on-line  exhibition project in 2008. While I was at Grunt Gallery, I picked up the 2008 Beat Nation (paper) catalog pictured above. The project grew to include 27 indigenous artists for its incarnation at VAG.

Want to do some homework on indigenous music, skate culture, and street art? The website http://www.beatnation.org/ is a great web-based resource about the significance of youth indigenous culture. Glenn Alteen introduced the concept of the project very succinctly: “This site focuses on the development of hip hop culture within Aboriginal youth communities and its influence on cultural production.

There has been some criticism over the years by older community members who see this influence as a break from tradition and the movement of the culture towards a pop-based mainstream assimilation. But in Beat Nation we see just the opposite happening. These artists are not turning away from the traditions as much as searching for new ways into them. Hip hop is giving youth new tools to rediscover First Nations culture. What is most striking about this work is how much of it embraces the traditional within its development.”

It’s worth making a close perusal of the http://www.beatnation.org/ website before attending the Vancouver Art Gallery. It’s clear the artists are ready for a wide audience. It’s time for the public to be ready for these artists, musicians, and athletes who are making “pop” culture into meaningful cultural practice.

Are you ready?

Art Opening – Beat Nation (Vancouver, BC)

Skeena Reece, Raven: On the Colonial Fleet (2010), Digital Photograph. Photo: Sebastian Kriete

The place to be this Friday night (February 24, 2012) is the opening of the exhibition Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture in Vancouver, BC, Canada. The opening reception takes place from 6-8pm at Vancouver Art Gallery (750 Hornby St.).

The curatorial statement reads as follows:

“Beat Nation reflects a generation of artists who juxtapose urban youth culture with Aboriginal identity in entirely innovative and unexpected ways. Using hip hop and other forms of popular culture, artists create surprising new cultural hybrids—in painting, sculpture, installation, performance and video—that reflect the changing demographics of Aboriginal people today.

In Vancouver, the unceded territories of the Coast Salish Nations have been a meeting ground for urban Aboriginal youth for decades and, since the early 1990s, hip hop has been a driving force of activism in the community. The roots of hip hop culture and music have been transformed into forms that echo current realities of young people, creating dynamic forums for storytelling and indigenous language, as well as new modes of political expression. This movement has been influential across disciplines—similar strategies appear in the visual arts where artists remix, mash-up and juxtapose the old with the new, the rural with the urban, traditional and contemporary as a means to rediscover and reinterpret Aboriginal culture within the shifting terrains of the mainstream.

While this exhibition takes its starting point from hip hop, it branches out to include artists who use pop culture, graffiti, fashion and other signifiers of urban life in combination with more traditional forms of Aboriginal identity. Artists create unique cultural hybrids that include graffiti murals with Haida figures, sculptures carved out of skateboard decks, abstract paintings with form-line design, live video remixes with Hollywood films, and hip hop performances in Aboriginal languages, to name a few. While focused on artists working along the West Coast, Beat Nation brings together artists from across the Americas and reveals the shared connections between those working in vastly different places.

As signifiers of Aboriginal identity and culture continue to shift and transform, and older traditions find renewed meaning in new forms of expression, one thing remains constant: a commitment to politics, to storytelling, to Aboriginal languages, to the land and rights, whether it be with drums skins or turntables, natural pigments or spray paint, ceremonial dancing or break dancing. 

Organized by the Vancouver Art Gallery and based on an initiative of grunt gallery. Co-curated by Kathleen Ritter, associate curator, Vancouver Art Gallery, and Tania Willard, a Secwepemc artist, designer and curator.” 

Scholar and blogger Jessica Metcalfe posted a bit more information about the exhibition and specific works by artist Maria Hupfield, whose work has previously been featured on Not Artomatic. For new images of Hupfield’s work in Beat Nation, click here: Beat Nation and Maria Hupfield.

Art Opening – “Cultural Connections” Evergreen Gallery

Artist Herman Pi'ikea Clark installing work in Evergreen Gallery.

There is an art opening at Evergreen Gallery, at The Evergreen State College, in Olympia, WA this Friday evening, from 5-7pm, December 9th, 2011, with an artist talk by Herman Pi’ikea Clark (Kanaka Maoli), artist in residence.

All works in the exhibition were produced on-site at The Evergreen State College in the past year. This exhibition is emblematic of the creative energy and cultural capital of the region, which capitalizes on the northwest coast as an economic hub and center of cultural exchange. The exhibition includes local artists as well as transplants and visitors from other regions, including visiting artist Herman Pi’ikea Clark, who is from Hawaii  and  teaches at the university level in New Zealand.

Prints by Linley Logan, Kayeri Akweks, and Ron Alphonse

Curatorial Statement:

The vision of the Longhouse as a gathering place for people of all cultural backgrounds is celebrated in Cultural Connections, a collection of artworks that honors the diversity of indigenous arts and cultures in today’s world. The exhibition features art by lead artists Marwin Begaye (Navajo), Peter Boome (Upper Skagit), and Herman Pi’ikea Clark (Kanaka Maoli), along with Northwest artists who participated in printmaking workshops led by Marwin Begaye and Peter Boome.

Participating artists include: Kristina Ackley (Oneida), Kayeri Akweks (Mohawk), Ron Alphonse (Cowichan), Bobbie Bush (Chehalis), Lara Evans (Cherokee), Louie Gong (Nooksack), Jeremiah George (Squaxin Island), Laura Grabhorn (Tlingit), Bonnie Graft (Muckleshoot), Michael Holloman (Colville), Charlene Krise (Squaxin Island), Tina Kuckkahn-Miller (Ojibwe), Greg Lehman (Squaxin Island), Linley Logan (Seneca), Alex McCarty (Makah), Kris Miller (Skokomish), Margie Morris (Tlingit), Paul Nicholson (Legacy Art Gallery), Erin Oly (Studio Technician), Ruth Peterson (Peterson Art Gallery), Yvonne Peterson (Chehalis), Lillian Pitt (Warm Springs/Wasco/Yakama), Arlen Speights (Houma), Andrea Wilbur-Sigo (Squaxin Island), and James Youngs (Squaxin Island).

Partners: The Longhouse Education and Cultural Center, the Squaxin Island Tribe, and Evergreen Gallery. Funding support provided by the Ford Foundation, the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

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Evergreen Gallery is located in Olympia, Washington, one hour south of Seattle, on the campus of The Evergreen State College, 2700 Evergreen Parkway, Olympia, WA. Evergreen Gallery is located in the Library Building on the main floor.

Gallery Hours: December 7, 2011 – January 18, 2012 (winter break closure Dec. 12 – Jan. 6) hours Dec. 7-10: 10 am – 5 pm. Phone: (360) 867-5125

Evergreen is a public liberal arts college, founded in 1971. This exhibition was organized through the Longhouse Education and Cultural Center.

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House of Welcome in Puget Sound Salixh - graphic

For more than a decade the mission of the “House of Welcome” Longhouse Education and Cultural Center at The Evergreen State College has been to promote indigenous arts and cultures. In the beginning, the Longhouse focused on six local Puget Sound tribes and their artists; today they work with indigenous artists throughout the Pacific Northwest region, nationally, and with other Pacific Rim indigenous peoples.

Preview of the exhibition "Cultural Connections"

“American Indian Day” Clip Art

John Feodorov, "Annoyed Indian Clip Art"

This September 28th is American Indian day. I’ve seen several different accounts of the call for this unofficial holiday – from Arthur C. Parker (Seneca) and Congress of the American Indian Association in 1915, to the Boy Scouts in 1916, the State of New York (1916), the state of California Assembly  (1968 and/or 1998). Regardless of the history of this date, some communities, native and non-native, are recognizing it with some sort of event.

How do I know? I’ve had a couple web-hits this week that resulted from google searches for the terms “Native American Day clip art,” and “American Indian Day clip art.” I was puzzled as to how people ended up on my blog with those search terms, but figured out after a few minutes that the search engine (Google) was coming up with those particular words as a combination from different postings. I write about performance art so I have included video “clips” as documentation of those performance art events. My whole blog is about indigenous art and I use American Indian, Native American, First Nations, and indigenous, etc., according the particular preferences of the artists and institutions addressed in my postings. And presto… a few people came looking for clip art.

Out of curiosity, I wanted to see what the other search results would be. Below is a screen shot from a section of clip art choices from one typical website. I intentionally blurred the edges (below) so that no one would actually use it as clip art from MY blog. Typically, the representation of an Indian in clip art is male, plains clothing,  an abnormally large or small head, or an abnormally puffed-out chest. Also common: canoes and teepees, eagle-feather headdresses.

Typical (and problematic) Indian-themed clip art sample. I blurred the edges intentionally.

For anyone genuinely in need of clip art for your American Indian Day event, I suggest finding an actual indigenous artist from YOUR GEOGRAPHICAL/CULTURAL REGION, and PAY THE ARTIST. Looking for suggestions for non-offensive content? Solicit a version of a geometric or floral pattern from beadwork, basketry, weaving, or rock art. If you need a graphic for your celebratory community event, consider that soliciting design work from local tribally-enrolled or tribally-recognized artists and designers helps build community relationships for the longterm. Clip art is all about short-term, shallow appearances.

I complained about the clip art issue on Facebook and was sent the image at the top of this post by artist John Feodorov. He is Navajo and lives in the Seattle, WA area. Annoyed Indian would be a great graphic for an American Indian day event that addresses the history of colonialism or the effects of stereotype (in any community).

 Don’t let clip art undermine your institution’s intentions!

John Feodorov, "Annoyed Indian Clip Art"

Need a laugh? There is a You Tube video about clip art. It is NSFW (Not Safe For Work). Only the first minute or so are relevant http://youtu.be/GTjTXOtff8A