First Priority: Buy Art that Raises Questions and Makes You Think

The Other First Priority: Buy Native American or First Nations Art

Or maybe I got those in the wrong order

The official “market” part takes place on the streets on Saturday and Sunday, but people began gathering in town in the early part of this week. More artists, curators, scholars, writers, filmmakers, educator, non-profit employees, grantors, community organization representatives, art fans, skateboarders, clothing designers, reporters, bloggers, and socializers, arrive each day. Most everyone is a collector, too, even if we don’t always see ourselves that way. For example, I don’t know a single artist who doesn’t own work by other artists. Sometimes the works were acquired by trade, gifted, or purchased with cash. If you’re a collector not sure what to buy and want something that is “quality” art, look at what artists acquire from each other. What do artists tend to buy from each other? Scale is often a factor. Most artists don’t  have a huge amount of space unless they have been wildly successful. Room to display/store artworks, the likelihood of having to make frequent moves, all factor into the choices we make about what to collect. From casual discussions with artists, I hear that we usually buy pieces that are smaller in scale for exactly those reasons. Anyone who can “go big,” should, of course. Over the past year, I’ve steered a number of casual conversations with artists in the direction of what they themselves have collected from other artists.

SWAIA would prefer we spend all our art dollars inside the confines of the official Indian Market booths, for a number of reasons. From remarks at a series of public talks held at Collected Works Bookstore over the past few weeks, it is clear that there are still a large number of touristy shops (about 60!) in the vicinity of the plaza that claim to be selling “Native American” work but aren’t. Their prices are terribly low and it’s because the jewelry, pots, tchotchkes, etc., are made overseas, usually mass-produced. Some dealers from outside the region also set up trunk-show-type events. In these cases, the money spent on the art doesn’t benefit Native artists, and usually leaves the region or the country entirely. First priority: Buy Native American or First Nations. The Other First Priority, Buy Something that Raises Questions and Makes You Think, is a good piece of advice for art collecting in general. I heard Dorothy and Herbert Vogel speak about their collection of minimalist and conceptualist art years ago. Their story is very interesting; a librarian and a postal service employee in New York city managed to acquire an amazing collection of art over the years and they did it on a budget, buying directly from artists, sometimes in installments. They had a general guideline that the work had to fit into a taxi. The couple donated their collection of over 4000 works of art to the National Gallery of Art in 1992. In 2008, they started a program which donated 50 works to a museum in each of the fifty states. I attended a public talk by the Vogels at the Portland Art Museum in 1997. When they were asked what advice they would give aspiring collectors, Herbert Vogel said people should buy what they like. The couple with the enormously valuable collection advised people not to buy an artwork as an investment, but because they like the art and want to live with it. Their advice made sense to me. If it doesn’t go up in value, at least you can enjoy looking at the artwork and thinking about it for years to come.

Well over a thousand artists are in Santa Fe this week. There is an amazing diversity of kinds of art available. Some of the art is about experience and cannot be purchased at all: performances of music and dance, live paint events, temporary public art, performance art and performance poetry, and free film screenings. We can live with the memories. Other art is work you can take home much more literally, as jewelry, pottery, sculpture, clothing, basketry, textiles, paintings, drawings, photographs. You can take home work that speaks about the past and the future, happiness and sadness, anger and acceptance, wealth and poverty, silliness and seriousness, facts and fictions, boredom and fear, love and hope.

“Zombie Skins: Salon a Vie Morte” opening on Wednesday, August 15, 2012

So Many Artists in One Place

The artists with booths at Indian Market are required to remain in their booths while their booths are open. That makes for a long, tiring day, with no opportunity to visit with other artists during the actual event. Group shows with openings at other venues in the days leading up to market are one way that artists have been making sure they have chances to get together and see each other’s work. Two notable examples of this are the Zombie Skins: salon de la vie mort exhibition and Low Rez: Native American Lowbrow Art. The zombie-themed exhibition is located in the studio of artist America Meredith, who kindly made space available for work by more than twenty artists. Zombie Skins is on exhibition through August 19th, 2012 and is open from 2pm-6pm each day. It is operating something like an artists’ collective, with artists sharing in gallery-sitting duties at 2889 Trades West #E (just off of Siler near Cerillos. It’s an industrial space at the back of the row.) The Low Rez exhibition is at Eggman and Walrus at 131 W. San Francisco. The opening is Friday, Aug 17 from 5:30-9pm. The work will be on exhibit through September 1st. Some of the artists in these two shows also have booths at Market. Here is a handy graphic:

 

Artists in Low Rez: Jamison Chas Banks, Nani Chacon, Brent Greenwood, Amber Gunn Gauthier, April Holder, Topaz Jones, Randy Kemp, Linda Lomahaftewa, Cannupa Hanska Luger, Daniel McCoy, Jr., America Meredith, Chris Pappan, Keith Secola, Jeremy Singer, Monty Singer, Ryan Singer, Hoka Skenandore, Micah Wesley, Debra Yepa-Pappan.

Artists in Zombie Skins: Bryon Archuleta, Roy Boney, Lara Evans, Robert Garcia, Sam Atakra Haozous, Topaz Jones, Daniel McCoy, Melissa Melero, Mary Beth Nelson, Ji Hae Pappan, Colin L. singer, Monty Singer, Julius Badoni, Jamison Chas Banks, Tom Farris, Jeremy Gimmey, Frank Buffalo Hyde, Cannupa Hanska Luger, Marlon Melero, America Meredith, Chris Pappan, Joseph Sanchez, Jerrel Singer, Ryan Singer, Natasha Wagner.

Approaching Quality

America Meredith (Cherokee), “Bringing Harmony into the World,” 2009. Gouache on paper. Courtesy of the artist.

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? This is the third blog post on the subject.

The initial blog entry on quality in Native American art defined two broad philosophical categories useful for discussing the first thing that usually comes up: authenticity. (Please see The ‘A’ Word)[1]

Like the public panel discussions, this segment of the blog project begins with the unpacking of assumptions around authenticity. A useful philosophically-based analysis of authenticity of art come from Denis Dutton. He identifies two broad categories of sense: nominative authenticity and expressive authenticity. Nominative authenticity deals with the identification of the artist, the object’s provenance, etc. Basically, anything you need to answer the question, “Is it a fake or not?” For objects being considered as “Native American” or “American Indian” artworks, there is an added layer – is the artist Native American? Because of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act (IACA) of 1990, legal definitions often determine who is a Native American artist.[2] Dutton’s term expressive authenticity refers to an object’s character as an expression of an individual’s or a society’s values and beliefs. The artists who participated in SWAIA’s first panel on the subject of quality (July 12, 2012) primarily discussed authenticity in terms of the second concept, expressive authenticity, although each artist made clear their “nominative authenticity” by introducing themselves with their tribal affiliations and additional cultural backgrounds.[3] An interesting distinction about nominative authenticity in regard to Native American art is that there is a component that judges the artist’s nominative authenticity, rather than the object’s authenticity. Is it possible that discussing the authenticity of an art object (in this particular case) objectifies the artist rather than acknowledging their agency and subjectivity as human beings?

This first public panel discussion on the subject of quality in Native American art (July 12, 2012) was moderated by Bruce Bernstein, director of SWAIA. The panelists were artists Alex J. Peña (Comanche), America Meredith (Cherokee), Cannupa Hanska Luger (Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara/Lakota), and Dr. Matthew Martinez (Ohkay Owingeh), Director of Northern Pueblos Institute and Assistant Professor of Pueblo Indian Studies at Northern New Mexico College.

Dr. Matthew Martinez said the following upon being asked for his thoughts about the idea of quality:

“One of the notions that first came to mind was this idea of the English word of quality. You really can’t translate it from a Tewa perspective into an English sensibility of what quality and value and aesthetics might mean from a tribal perspective. One thing that pueblos often think and practice is this idea of inclusion, and incorporating aspects. There is always this notion of thinking about new ways of understanding through trade, through travel .We can point to our use of coral, shells, the macaw parrot feathers we use in song and ceremony; there have always been these items of travel, trade, and influence. They have become, in a sense, pueblo-ized, or Tewa-ized, if that’s a word. You think about what makes those specifics when it comes to pueblo sensibilities and pueblo religion? They can come from the outside world, so to speak, but they become ours. We don’t own them, but they are ours in the sense, when it comes to using them, to using songs and prayer. When I think about these notions, and working with students, we always point to these examples of trade, travel, and influence. Indian Market is one way to think about this traffic and culture in northern New Mexico and […] our approaches to the art world. I’m not sure I have a quick answer to what quality is, specifically, but it is this notion of how we adapt to new ways of understanding and how we approach art and beauty from a tribal perspective. It’s an ongoing conversation.”[4]

Alex J. Peña , “Too Many Ways to Say Nothing,” Photo Intaglio, Pochoir, Screenprint, and Chine Colle, 2011. Courtesy of the artist.

Each of the speakers on the July 12th, 2012 panel spoke about their upbringing and the mix of influences they experienced growing up, Native and non-Native. They also spoke about challenges they encountered in their art training in college and graduate school, including the pressures to have their work look identifiably “Indian.” Each of these artists work with content specific to their cultures, experiences, and history, using materials and styles chosen to best communicate their ideas. Their remarks during preparation for the panel, and during the panel itself, responded to particular pressures on Native artists that are embedded in any discussion of “quality,” at least so far: firstly, authenticity of a racial “Indian” identity; secondly, authenticity of materials and style. The perception of authentic materials is commonly expressed as a combination of factors; “old” materials, rare materials, materials that are labor-intensive to obtain, labor-intensive to work with, and “natural” in origin, as in pottery, basketry, or weaving, in particular. Peña, Meredith, and Luger all use materials that, while they may be costly or laborious to work with, are all commercially available and not perceived as particularly “natural.” Artist Alex J. Peña used a brief story from graduate school to transform the conventional discussion of the relationship between quality and authenticity:

“I had an interesting professor in graduate school. After all kinds of critiques, group critiques, with a whole bunch of different students, at the end of all of this, she goes, ‘it only matters to you, if you like it or not.’ So I think that it’s important when talking […] about an idea of honesty, especially when it comes to quality. Is it honest to the artist’s self? Were you trying to make something that looks quality? To make something to make somebody happy, or whatever it is? I really appreciated that one professor’s advice to me. It’s that you’re the one who can look at it and you’re the one who’s going to ultimately assess its quality, or its worth, or whatever it is. All the professors in the world can say all they want to, but it’s you in the end. And so I think that’s important for my work: I need to be honest about who I am and for that to come across in my work, and not force myself into any type of imagery or any type of symbolism or anything that doesn’t feel right to me, or that doesn’t feel honest. So that’s how I assess my own quality of my work. When I feel myself going away from that and I feel myself being coerced by another outside force, then that’s when I start to question my own quality of my work.[5] 

Alex Peña, Mid Summer (Early), 2012, Monotype/Mixed-Media. Courtesy of the Artist

Peña’s recounting of this graduate school exchange uses a small piece of rather normal art school advice to work through an issue he encounters regularly because of the fact that he is Comanche and non-Native. He also reframed the discussion, moving from Denis Dutton’s nominative authenticity to expressive authenticity, which Peña describes as “honesty.” Pena examines his own work’s quality for the artworks honest expression of his influences, experiences, and complicated cultural history.  Prior to the panel, Peña said, “This is my first year at Indian Market, so I’m really interested to see the response to my work. It’s not Native-looking at all. I’m a printmaker mainly. I do a lot of painting and drawing, and I make my own paper.” Another panelist asked if making his own paper, from natural materials, is specifically indigenous.  Peña replied, “I feel like it’s inherent. It’s not something that I consciously have to tell myself every time I make a piece, ‘Alex, you’re Native; you need to do it this way.’ It’s just part of who I am and I how I look at things.” [6]  

Cannupahanska, “Up keep,” 2012, ceramic, wood, EVA sheet, courtesy of the artist.

Cannupa Hanska Luger also responded positively to Peña’s transition to talking about the artist as the starting point for quality. “My work is a subjective byproduct; it’s what’s left over after I have developed the most qualitative aspect, which is like the creation process. I enjoy that part. One once that’s completed, I may end up with something beautiful, or I may not. As far as quality goes, first and foremost, I am the first person to determine whether its quality. Beyond that, it is just a level of acceptance for anybody else, from any viewer.[7] 

Discussing quality in Native art involves pulling in a number of different components. I will return to a quote I used from Dr. Matthew Martinez. He said he did not have a quick answer to what quality is, “but it is this notion of how we adapt to new ways of understanding and how we approach art and beauty…” He spoke about quality as part of a process, not necessarily an end result. The way that Alex Peña and Cannupa Hanska Luger spoke about quality as starting from their own experiences of the process of making artworks may also imply that quality is something one approaches, rather than achieves. From a market-ended perspective, the basic assumption seems to be that quality is an end-result, a tangible object, with a (negotiable) monetary value. As subjective as quality is at the creation-stage even the consumer stage involves highly subjective elements. The terms often used to discuss these subjective elements are aesthetics, authenticity, taste, and style. Most commonly, published discourse on these subjects is from a non-Native point of view. A small number of scholars have worked on devising means of discussing aesthetics from indigenous viewpoints. (For a brief annotated bibliography, see the previous post “Another ‘A’ Word: Aesthetics.”)

America Meredith brought the scholarly work of Heather Ahtone (Choctaw/Chickasaw) to the audience’s attention during the July 12th panel discussion as an example of a useful framework for analyzing some of the differences and similarities in systems of aesthetics. Ahtone’s essay, “Designed to Last: Striving toward an Indigenous American Aesthetic,”[8]analyzes ideas from Steven Leuthold’s book, Indigenous Aesthetics (which focuses on aesthetics in relationship to video and film). Ahtone’s essay works on adapting Leuthold’s consideration of indigenous aesthetics to other art forms.   Ahtone identifies and describes four concepts that may be useful for defining Indigenous Aesthetics: materials, metaphors, cultural reciprocity, and symbolism. Could Ahtone’s components of Indigenous Aesthetics help us talk about “quality” in Native American art in a way that moves beyond discussing the artist’s authenticity or the authenticity of their materials? Ahtone starts with materials, but she does not end there. Her analysis of “cultural reciprocity” could be expanded to consider inter-cultural reciprocity, both as part of the process of artmaking artists are engaging in, but also as part of the cultural exchanges that happen as a result of the art market. The second panel discussion (from July 18th) focused almost exclusively on materials and material processes, defining “authentic” and “inauthentic.” Are materials the only subject possible to discuss when there is a gap in, as Ahtone puts it, cultural reciprocity?

I will close this essay with a quote from artist America Meredith: “What do you aspire to with the art? I think for us it is the harmony ethic. Western art, in grad school, all that people were looking for is something more and more extreme. ‘Take this further!’ That was always the dialogue. And for us I think it is, ‘Make it more balanced. Make it more centered and balanced.’ I think that’s a big difference in conceptualizing quality.”[9]

SWAIA’s next panel on Quality in Native American Art takes place Thursday, August 2nd at 6pm at Collected Works Bookstore in Santa Fe. Panelists are: Andrea Fisher, Jeff Lewis, John Dressman, Travis Suazo (Laguna, Acoma, Taos), Elizabeth Pettus.

 

RELATEDPOSTS (in Order)

July 12, 2012 The “A” Word

July 18, 2012 Another “A” Word: Asthetics

August 16, 2012 First Priority

 


[1] All links open in a separate window.

[2] A good source for more information on the history, intent, and impact of the IACA of 1990 is by William T. Hapiuk, Jr. “Of Kitsch and Kachinas: A Critial Analysis of the ‘Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990,’”  published in Stanford Law review, Vol. 53, No. 4 (April 2001), pp. 1009-1075.

[4] Matthew Martinez, panel discussion, July 12, 2012 at Collected Works Bookstore in Santa Fe, NM.

[5] Alex J. Peña, panel discussion, July 12, 2012 at Collected Works Bookstore in Santa Fe, NM.

[6] Alex J. Peña, personal communication, July 12, 2012.

[7] Cannupa Hanska Luger, panel discussion, July 12, 2012 at Collected Works Bookstore in Santa Fe, NM.

[8] Heather Ahtone, “Designed to Last: Striving toward an Indigenous American Aesthetic,” in The International Journal of the Arts in Society, Vol. 4, No. 2 (2009) pp. 373-385.

[9] America Meredith, personal communication, July 12, 2012.

Another “A” Word: Aesthetics

The panelists from SWAIA’s July 12th discussion of “Quality” in Native American Art.

Panel Discussion at Collected Works Bookstore – Thursday, July 19, 2012 – 6pm

Quality in Native American Art

This Thursday brings a continuation of SWAIA’s public panel discussions about the subject of quality in Native American art. Last week’s panel discussion started the task of pulling apart what “quality” might mean when the subject is Native American art. One of the first considerations is authenticity. Last week’s panel complicated what it might mean to make authentic work, from an artist’s perspective and a community perspective. Any discussion of quality in art will eventually bring in another “A” word: AESTHETICS. I put together a brief list of sources that specifically address the concept of “Indigenous Aesthetics” in case the topic interests other readers. This list is a work in progress. Again, this list is limited specifically to “Indigenous Aesthetics.” Aesthetics (in general) is an enormous subject with thousands of possible sources.

Do you have a favorite source not listed here? Add it in the comments section or send me an e-mail.

Ahtone, Heather. “Designed to Last: Striving toward an Indigenous American Aesthetics.” The International Journal of the Arts in Society 4, no. 2 (2009): 373-385.

Heather Ahtone (Choctaw/Chickasaw Nations) is a curator and scholar. She earned a Master’s degree from University of Oklahoma. This journal article analyzes ideas from Steven Leuthold’s book, Indigenous Aesthetics, which focuses on aesthetics in relationship to video and film, and works on adapting his consideration of indigenous aesthetics to address other art forms.  Ahtone’s essay identifies and describes four concepts that may be useful for defining Indigenous Aesthetics: materials, metaphors, cultural reciprocity, and symbolism. Artist America Meredith wrote a post on her blog about Ahtone’s scholarship: Heather Ahtone Reads Beneath the Surface.

McMaster, Gerald and Bruce Bernstein. “The Aesthetic in American Indian Art.” In First American Art: the Charles and Valerie Diker Collection of American Indian Art, edited by Bruce Bernstein and Gerald McMaster, pp. 37-56. Seattle: University of Washington Press and NMAI Smithsonian Institution, 2004.

Gerald McMaster is an artist, curator, and author. He is Plains Cree and Blackfoot and currently lives in Toronto, Canada. He earned a Master’s degree in Anthropology and Sociology from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario. Bruce Bernstein earned a Ph.D. in Anthropology from University of New Mexico. Both authors have worked extensively within museums that exhibit Native American and First Nations art. This chapter, “The Aesthetic in American Indian Art,” was written by Bernstein and McMaster, particularly centered around works collected by Charles and Valerie Diker over a thirty-year period. Their collection intermingled historic-period American Indian works with American and European painting and sculpture. The collectors appreciated their American Indian collection based on their aesthetics, as art objects, rather than ethnographic artifacts. Bernstein and McMaster set out to define a framework for thinking about objects in this collection in terms of indigenous aesthetics. In consultation with a number of other scholars and artists,[1] they defined seven principles of an indigenous aesthetic: idea, emotion, intimacy, movement, integrity, vocabulary, and composition.[2] Other chapters in this book are also useful for considering indigenous aesthetics.

Leuthold, Steven. Indigenous Aesthetics: Native Art, Media, and Identity. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.

This book examines documentary film and video by by Native filmmakers, including Victor Masayesva, Jr. and George Burdeau. The book jacket description says: “What happens when a Native or indigenous person turns a video camera on his or her own culture? Are the resulting images different from what a Westernized filmmaker would create, and, if so, in what ways? How does the use of a non-Native art-making medium, specifically video or film, affect the aesthetics of the Native culture?”

Haberland, Wolfgang. “Aesthetics in Native American Art. In The Arts of the North American Indian: Native Traditions in Evolution, edited by Edwin L. Wade, pp. 107-131. New York: Hudson Hills Press and Philbrook Art Center, 1986.

Wolfgang Haberland wrote this book chapter during his time as curator for the Museum für Völkerkunde in Hamburg, Germany. It focuses on historic-period objects, 1400s-1940s. It provides some research, history, and analysis of particular southwest and northwest coast works (mostly textiles), but the author’s approach to the subject of “aesthetics” assumes the art objects were produced by a primitive and non-literate population.  It is useful as an example of a particular stage in the development of non-Native scholars’ attempts to merge anthropological/ethnographic approaches with art criticism, including brief references to Warburg, Panofsky, and Gombrich.


[1] Bruce Bernstein and Gerald McMaster, “The Aesthetic in American Indian Art,” in Bruce Bernstein and Gerald McMaster, eds., First American Art: the Charles and Valerie Diker Collection of American Indian Art, (Seattle: University of Washington Press and NMAI Smithsonian Institution, 2004) 39. Participants in discussions leading to the seven principles of an indigenous aesthetic included the following: Arthur Amiotte (Lakota), Janet Berlo, J.J. Brody, Robert Davidson (Haida), Frank Ettawageshik (Odawa), Harry Fonseca (Maidu), Emil Her many Horses (Lakota), Tom Hill (Seneca), Mary Jane Lenz, Truman Lowe (Ho-Chunk),Peter Macnair, and Ann McMullen.

[2] Bernstein and McMaster, 40.

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).

 ——

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.


Maria Hupfield’s Double Tripod Inverters

While I work on writing about Vestige Vagabond, a performance by artists Maria Hupfield and Charlene Vickers performed at the Museum of Contemporary Native Art last weekend, I thought I would share a four-minute podcast by students from The Evergreen State College. My thoughts are with Maria Hupfield and her family in NYC as hurricane Irene heads in that direction.

Last year, Maria Hupfield’s installation work Double Tripod Inverters was part of the exhibition titled It’s Complicated: Art about Home at The Evergreen State College Gallery in Olympia, Washington. Several academic programs used the exhibition as the taking-off point for assignments for students. The video above was created as a podcast by first-year students Joe, Alex, and Jesse. This was a project they completed in five weeks. The team of students viewed the artwork by Maria Hupfield in the art gallery, researched the artist’s career, devised interview questions and corresponded with her, wrote and recorded voice-over narration, edited a digital recording sent by the artist, and selected images to accompany the audio track. They began the project with no previous training in art or podcasting, just a desire to better understand an artwork they found interesting. The college’s excellent media staff made it possible for these students to learn the technology and quickly put it into practice.

If you would like to download this student podcast or others from the exhibition,  please visit  http://blogs.evergreen.edu/visionsandvoices/ and follow the download instructions.

detail view of Maria Hupfield's installation "Double Tripod Inverter" at The Evergreen State College

A Commentary on Animals and Human Boundaries – Merritt Johnson at Grunt Gallery

Merritt Johnson, Buffalo vector border crossing (Yellowstone), 2009. Her work is on view at Grunt Gallery, Vancouver, until June 26, 2010.

I visited Vancouver, BC for the mid-show opening of “Merritt Johnson: Sky Dome (props, patches, rips, and tears)” at Grunt Gallery on May 28th.  The exhibition featured paintings and a pair of sculptures by Merritt Johnson, who is faculty at Emily Carr. The “Sky Dome” in the title references the traditional Iroquois representation of the sky as a dome over the earth. (Johnson is of mixed Mohawk, Blackfoot, and non-aboriginal heritage). The series plays with the arbitrary marking out of property lines, boundaries, and borders, visually represented by red lines overlayed onto the landscape.  Pinkish-red  or blue v-shaped vector lines represent natural flows, such as wind, water, or animal migrations. In some of the paintings, the red line has smeared and bled out over the landscape, traipsed through by animals and birds who have scattered and broken the boundary lines. At other times, the red lines have become physical objects that are then used by the animals to build ladder forms and lodge poles that prop up the sky.

Merritt Johnson, Patching and Propping (up) the Sky Dome, 2009. Image courtesy of he artist.

It is difficult to make out in the digital images, but the detail shots show the blue bears standing on a platform, placing skins against the dome of the sky. In the lower right, the two dark specks are coyote and rabbit, two trickster figures responsible for many new inventions and as well as disasters. Here, they push a lodge pole up against another pole to help support the dome of the sky, actually deforming the shape of the dome and strengthening the painting’s visual reference to the shape of a tipi. This particular painting is ink and gouache on paper and is quite large at 40 x 60 inches. Gold leaf at the very bottom of the work symbolizes gold and oil underground.

DETAIL of Patching and Propping (up) the Sky Dome

I visited Johnson at her studio in downtown Vancouver, and this is what she had to say about the animals in her paintings:

 

I was thinking about different animals – for a long time I worked with birds as a stand-in for people. This started years ago, while I was still in school and working very much with performance, primarily. I was using birds as stand-in for humans and also as birds, because birds are, I think, unique in that we don’t have as much ability to control them. They fly through and over everything, so they are active in the land wherever they want to be. They have this freedom from us in a way that I think is really great. I think of them as witnessing, in that they are always present. So I was using birds for that reason, but also using them to stand in for us. Then that grew from birds to other animals that I felt made sense, in terms of what the animal stands for, realistically and also symbolically.

I used the bears in that one because they are so powerful and often thought of as being really aggressive.  They’ve been hunted, hunted as enemies. We don’t want to live with them. They are also really big and they have this strange ability to walk on two legs or four legs. They have this strange inhuman humanness. In terms of animals of North America, bears are the biggest. They are bigger than men when they stand up and their range covered all of North America. This led me to the idea of an animal using its skin to patch the sky. At the time, I was doing a lot of work with rawhide, with deerskin, for the performance piece Museum Quality. This idea came from the size of the bearskins – being so big – I started thinking about, well, what if there were bears that were the same color as the sky? What if they wanted to fix the sky and they were willing to give up their skins to patch the sky? That was the idea that was at the heart of the animals in all of the works.

Animals are far more selfless than we are. Human investment in land is so much about resources, about what we can get for land and what the land can do for us. It’s all about use, for our comfort or convenience. I started thinking about a different way of approaching the land. I think that there is an indigenous approach to the land: to view the land as something that we need to sustain, rather than the land sustaining us. I think about the relationship that animals have to the land as being an indigenous relationship.

But for the purposes of this work, that’s why the animals take on all of our roles.

And yet, in a way, the bears are still bears and the birds are birds. [1]  

Gallery View, Injured Turkey Protects the Sky in the background

The series of works relies upon carefully punctuated details. Moving around the gallery, viewing one piece after another, each has its own animals and its own use of the red lines. Sometimes the red lines are man-made obstructions, other times the animals tear through them and the lines fall apart. In some cases, the animals fashion the red lines into repair tools. One of the works is a combination sculpture and painting; Injured Turkey Protects the Sky consists of a painting of a stormy sky with tears in the fabric of the sky above a bleeding red border line. Beneath the painting, a turkey spreads its wings protectively over the broken pieces of sky. Blue construction materials and red mylar are jumbled together in a pile, as if waiting for rabbit and coyote, bear, crow, raven, and turkey to carry the pieces back up into the sky to begin repairs.

Johnson’s work is a carefully crafted commentary on the boundaries that humans set and the boundaries set in the natural world. Patterns of migration, airflow, water evaporation, all create their own natural boundaries – factors not considered when we humans set our boundaries, borders, and fences. Johnsons points this out with a subtle, wry humor and beautiful handling of paint.

“Merritt Johnson: Sky Dome (props, patches, rips, and tears),” curated by Tania Willard,  is on view at Grunt Gallery through June 26th. Grunt Gallery: #116 – 350 East 2nd Ave, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada V5T 4R8, Phone: 604.875.9516


[1] Merritt Johnson, personal communication, May 29, 2010, Vancouver, BC.

A First-hand Account of James Luna’s Petroglyphs in Motion, as performed at Site Santa Fe in 2000

 by Lara Evans

Yes- it has been TEN years. Imagine this scene:

Site Santa Fe has undergone an alteration since my last visit to the space.  The large open area is filled with rows of chairs that face each other over a wide, empty central aisle in preparation for a performance art piece by James Luna, a Luiseño Indian from the La Jolla Reservation north of San Diego, California.  The center aisle is lined with lighting fixtures at floor level.  The lights are angled upward, fulfilling the function of footlights, and if I’m not careful about directing my gaze, I am briefly blinded by the afterglow they make on my retinas.  The audience is mostly hushed and is an interesting mix of Indians, chic art students (some of those are Indian, too), and the Santa Fe uppercrust.  Conversations are carried on in low voices while we wait for the performance to begin.  A drummer takes his place on a raised stand alongside the walkway.  I don’t mean a traditional Indian drummer; I mean a modern Indian drummer, with a full drum kit with cymbals and a cowbell.  The drummer sets a beat and runs with it.  The artist, James Luna, appears from a doorway next to the center aisle.  He is wrapped up in a wool blanket, completely obscured by it, and holds the curved end of a cane out of the small gap where his head would be.  He meanders down the walkway, and disappears from sight.  When he returns, he wears very little.  He moves slowly, smoothly, toward the back wall and places his palm, fingers outstretched, against the white wall slightly above head level.  He turns and makes his way down the long aisle.  He doesn’t walk, run, or strut.  He tenses all the muscles in his body and makes a slow-motion sort of run, as if each step is a struggle against an enormous weight before him.  Before he reaches the end of the aisle, there is a slight sheen of perspiration over his body.  He places his hand against the wall again in a very deliberate gesture and turns back the way he came, still moving with that painful slow motion “run.”  Once he returns to his point of origin, he repeats the hand gesture and disappears from our view.  The drummer has kept up a heavy beat the entire time, shifting rhythms and tones to suit Luna’s actions.  The performance follows the pattern set by its first few minutes.  Luna traverses the walkway in various modes of dress, with movements appropriate to the attire.  On one trip he is an Indian businessman, yelling silently into a mobile phone.  At either end, that phone is placed very deliberately against the wall to create a reference to the four directions rather than the open-handed gesture performed previously. 

 

 

      

 

     

 

While Luna is out of our view, my attention is taken up by the drum rhythms woven by the musician who occupies a platform off to the side.  Luna re-enters as an Indian man in neo-traditional ‘buckskins.’ He saunters up and down the catwalk playing a very soulful saxophone, even though his instrument is a yellow toy saxophone instrument and the notes exist only in the imagination.  He passes a cup through the audience and they give generously, and include non-monetary items like business cards and a woman’s phone number on a business card, handed over  very flirtatiously.

 

            Luna’s next persona also passes around a cup, though the audience seems stunned and there is a disapproving hush as he staggers about in the characteristic movements of a drunk.  He mimes urinating against a wall.  I described the audience reaction to this section as disapproving, though there was more variety than that.  Stunned is certainly accurate, but the reactions of myself and some audience members might be well-described as confusion, and wondering “where is he going with this?”   Because this was a performance art event, and because he clearly expected us to participate – his cup was presented so insistently – we had to each individually decide what to DO.  Even failing to do anything seemed to be “doing” something.  A moment ago we had been to willing to respond with generosity, humor, approval.  What was different now?  Luna was presenting us with a drunken Indian man, begging for change. 

video still

 This is something that anyone living in an urban area of New Mexico has experienced in the real world.  What does our hesitation in this performance say about us?  About the world we live in?  Is this about approval?  Disapproval?  Pity?  Compassion?  Do I put some coins in the begging cup held out by the ‘drunken Indian?’  Will that imply approval and acceptance of that stereotype?  It seems lacking in compassion to simply do nothing.  Is it possible to act with compassion while not furthering the stereotype?  But the moment passes. The cup is gone, and I have done nothing.  The drum solo continues and the audience, including myself, only have a short time to wrestle with our consciences before Luna reemerges in yet another guise.

So many “characters” make their way up and the “catwalk” that they create a swirling impression of the complexity and plurality on “Indian” masculinity.  Luna brings himself out as a Vietnam veteran in a wheelchair.  A medicine bag hangs from one handle of the wheelchair.   With slow dignity, he pushes himself through the crowd, gaze fixed in the distance, a stoic warrior-type who served his country years ago, and is still proud, still dignified.

 

 

 

Another time, Luna emerges wearing animal-print briefs with a furred tail attached behind.  In a bent-over posture, he sniffs the air, looks around warily, and then is startled by the emergence of a blonde-wigged woman in red dress who begins chasing him with a broom.  They disappear out of sight and return.  This time, Coyote has a banana dangling between his legs.  He chases the woman, making lewd gestures toward her and toward the audience with his banana.  She runs around the room in mock-horror with this oversexed, coyote-tailed man chasing her.  Most of us are laughing.  The exaggerated sexual content – Coyote holding the banana and shaking it in the woman’s direction, her exaggerated mock horror – surprises us.  The laughter is part discomfort with the sexual content, part relief that it is so ‘over the top’ that we don’t have to take it seriously, and partly a need for a respite from the seriousness of some of the previous personas.  I experienced a thrill of recognition that Luna was presenting us with the sexual side of the Coyote that I am familiar with from the Coyote tales in the region where I was raised.  Coyote as Trickster is often ‘cleaned up,’ so to speak. He is more or less de-sexualized for public consumption.  Luna was giving us the highly sexed side of Coyote, whose sexual drive is so ridiculously extreme that he will try to have sexual intercourse with ANYTHING.  I experienced this as an “in” joke, something that likely only someone who was familiar with Coyote from the oral traditions of California tribes would recognize.  There were other layers of meaning to this segment for people unfamiliar with this version of Coyote to pick up on.  For instance, this sequence could be understood as a reference to the sexualization of Indian Warriors, and dominant-culture fears of white women being “polluted” by men of color.  When the woman chases Coyote away with her broom, the broom becomes a symbol of domesticity/civilization, and Coyote a symbol of wilderness/nature.  This segment brings to mind the constant conflicts between people who have had their homes built on the edge of town, in suburbs that encroach on animal habitats and who then complain about the wild animals who encroach on their property: deer, skunks, mountain lions, bears, and, of course, coyotes.  Some of the laughter may have been generated by this association:  the irony of people encroaching on natural habitats, and then reacting as though they are being terrorized by nature when the opposite is true.

There is the possibility that this performance overall could have come off as disjointed, unrelated vignettes or a costume show. However, the repeated hand-gesture against the wall at each end of the catwalk worked to connect the personas.  Even when it was not practical for a particular persona to make the gesture, there was always a pause of acknowledgement at each end.  I understood a number of the personas to be representing different aspects of the trickster Coyote.  This overarching theme created enough structure for the piece to hold together without resulting in a linear theatrical narrative.  I experienced moments of laughter, humor, irony, skepticism, uncertainty, embarrassment, self-analysis, and, during it all, I felt the drummer’s ever-changing rhythms thudding and clanging through me.

 Performance Sequence of Events for Petroglyphs in Motion: 

1)         Shaman.[1]  Wearing beaded moccasins, enveloped in a Pendleton wool blanket, carrying a cane or shepherd’s crook protruding from the opening above the head. See studio photograph (in which a golf club has been substituted for the cane) and still-frame from video. Movement characteristics: slow, looping path up and down the runway.  See Figures 13 and 15.

2)         Runner 1.  Wearing snakeskin-patterned briefs, beaded moccasins. Movement characteristics: slow motion running, muscles tensed and straining.  See Figure 3.

3)         Runner 2. Same clothing as #2, plus a beaded peyote rattle.  Movement characteristics: slow, looping path, more relaxed movement than the previous Runner. 

4)         Business Man.  Same clothing as #3, with the black handset of a phone instead of the rattle.  Gestures extravagantly while mouthing words into the phone. Deliberately pauses at each end and places the handset vertically, then horizontally against the wall at each end. Movement characteristics: walks as though pacing while on the phone.  See Figure 3.

5)         Runner 3. Same clothing as #2, #3, #4, hands empty. Movement characteristics: an all-out run to the end of the walkway and back.

6)         Saxman.[2]  Yellow fringed buckskin shirt, dance-apron of a glittering black fabric, faux-snakeskin trousers, red cloth cap with red feathers and a beaded headband, playing a yellow and purple plastic toy saxophone, also carrying a paper cup.  Movement characteristics: pretends to play the instrument, passes around a cup.  See Figure 4.

7)         Drinking Man.  Blue bandana headband, flannel shirt over the clothing from #6, sunglasses, tallboy can of beer and the same donation cup.   Movement characteristics: mimes urination against the near wall, lies down to feign sleep against the far wall, rises passes the cup through the audience, hands off the beer can to someone in the audience, staggers, burps.  See Figure 10.

8)         Cigarette Man.  Wearing bathrobe, slippers, sunglasses, a different bandana headband, carrying cigarette, pushing and oxygen-tank, holding an oxygen mask in one hand.  Coughs occasionally, puts oxygen mask up to mouth. Movement characteristics: ambles slowly in looping path up and back down the walkway.

9)         Leatherguy.[3]  Black leather vest, small whip, metal armbands, snakeskin patterned briefs, black leather belt covered with silver metal studs. Black-brimmed hat, sunglasses, yellow leather loafers.   See Luna’s studio photograph. Movement characteristics: street swagger, occasionally smacking the small whip across the palm of his hand.  See Figure 6.

10)     Coyote.[4]  Wearing a red t-shirt with the sleeves cut into fringe, same briefs and loafers as in #9, with coyote tail attached to the seat of the shorts.  Coyote emerges, then is chased by a blonde-wigged woman in a sexy red dress.  She carries a broom and swats at him. Movement characteristics: he runs away from her, ducking her broom. See Figures 5 and 12.

11)     Randy Coyote. With the addition of a banana attached to the front of the briefs.  Coyote chases the woman, occasionally stopping to shake the banana at the audience.  Movement characteristics: overtly sexual.  See Figure 12.

12)     Cool Coyote.  Red hat with a brim, red trousers, shimmery black shirt, sunglasses, coyote tail hangs from the rear of the pants.  Movement characteristics: be-bops down the path, moving to the drum rhythms with some additional dance moves.  See Figure 9.

13)     Vietnam Vet/Indian Warrior.  Red pants from #12.  Shirtless. Seated in wheelchair with one leg tucked under.  Dimestore imitation of a Plains-style feathered headdress, sunglasses.  A medicine bag hangs from one of the handles of the wheelchair.  Movement characteristics: slowly wheels himself down the path, ignoring the audience.  See Figure 13.

I have a lengthy and detailed analysis of this performance piece that I am working on for a future post – especially if anyone expresses interest in knowing more about this work!  I am adapting from my dissertation, so it takes quite a bit of re-writing to make that sort of writing interesting.  Maybe this summer I will get the time to search out a publisher for this work. let me know if you have any advice on that front.

And by the way, thank you to Mr. Luna for his generosisty with his documentation of his work over the years, his willingness to answer my questions, and his frankness when I’m barking up the wrong tree. I guess the important thing is to just keep barking!


[1] Luna’s term for this persona.

[2] Luna’s term.

[3] Luna’s term.

[4] Luna’s term.