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.


Performance Documentation: Vestige Vagabond

Maria Hupfield and Charlene Vickers, Vestige Vagabond, performance, August 2011

This blog post presents performance documentation from a performance I attended on August 20th, 2011. Vestige Vagabond was a public art performance by artists Maria Hupfield and Charlene Vickers. It was presented in conjunction with the exhibition Counting Coup at the Museum of Contemporary Native Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The piece has been developing over the past couple years, but the locale for it’s most recent presentation is particularly significant.[1] The version I witnessed took place in the midst of SWAIA’s[2] annual Santa Fe Indian Market. The event has been held every year since 1922. The streets around the central plaza become an open-air market that attracts indigenous North American artists to sell their work. Indian Market brings an estimated 80,000 people to Santa Fe.[3]

Santa Fe Indian Market, August 2011.

Artists Maria Hupfield and Charlene Vickers described their intentions this way: In this performance, the value of Native American culture, ingenuity, function, aesthetics, and sharing will be emphasized through a series of new and unexpected objects and actions in a public interactive open market setting – under the museum’s portal.[4]

I saw the performance on the first day of Market, August 20th. It was repeated the following day. All the photographs accompanying this article are from this first performance. The heart of Vestige Vagabond is the street-market dynamics played out in a cultural market, where artists/artisans lay their handmade objects on a table for the perusal of buyers. Hupfield and Vickers began their performance with arrival and set-up, like the hundreds of artists at market, by pulling roller bags behind them, unpacking, and laying out objects on a market table. Ordinarily, there is a look-but-don’t-touch-without-permission standard for behavior at market. Many of the art objects for sale come with prices in the tens-of-thousands. The performance artists overcame audience reticence by demonstrating the use of some of the objects, such as the braids/Walkman/rock apparatus, and then passing the object to a bystander. They never gave verbal instructions and only spoke to each other. As the performance progressed, people in the audience became braver about exploring and using the objects being passed around. At the end of the performance, the artists wiped their sweaty faces with the napkins printed to resembled Canadian bills.[5]Then they gathered up and arranged all the objects in an attractive sales display, positioning themselves behind the table, much like the artists selling their work at the market.

I did not get to see the second performance, on Sunday, August 21st. Hupfield sent me the following statement about changes she and Vickers made to the second performance:

For the second day we wanted to find ways to help the santa fe crowd break through their role as passive observers and get them really involved. To help with this we started the performance by hand-printing two signs that read “not for sale” and “demos here now.” We also integrated a few more staged style actions together and responded directly to individuals in the crowd. For example we singled out Amber Dawn (Bear Robe) to wear our fringe gloves, distributed and boxed with the beads and did an impromptu honor dance with the tea cup for a mother who was carrying her child on her back. It was good times!

Welcome sign describing the performance outside of Museum of Contemporary Native Art.

The artists arrive.

Set-up begins.

Set-up continues.

Hupfield looks into a box with an eyepiece before handing it to someone in the audience.

The audience begins examining the objects.

Hupfield with rock, walkman.

The walkman, with braids and a rock attached, plays language lessons in indigenous languages.

Charlene Vickers presents a second walkman. This one played pow wow music.

A birch bark basket with wooden nickels and a magnifying lens.

Paper napkins printed to look like Canadian bills were kept in the back pockets of both artists.

The display table. The large squishy vinyl cylinder on the right corner of the table is huge pony bead.

The display table at the end of the performance.

Printed napkins used in the performance.

Artist Biographies:

Maria Hupfield works across disciplines to engage in intersecting points of dialogue between Western and non-Western visual representations and philosophies. Her practice evidences the body as a site of resistance, agency and social engagement. She is a member of Wasauksing First Nation and is of Anishnaabe/Ojibway Heritage. A graduate of the MFA program at York University, Maria holds a BA Specialist in Art and Art History from the University of Toronto and Sheridan College. Hupfield lives and works in New York City.

Charlene Vickers is an Anishinaabe artist living and working in Vancouver. She graduated from Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in 1994 and Simon Fraser University, Critical Studies in 1998. Born in Kenora, Ontario and raised in Toronto. Her art explores ancestry and living in urban spaces.[6]

Related Blog Entries: Native Performance Art and Performance Theory Rebecca Belmore: Vigil


[1] There is a brief video clip from a 2010 performance of Vestige Vagabond on You Tube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=owl1Y3TDaIo
[2] SWAIA stands for Southwestern Association for Indian Art
[3] For more of the history of SWAIA and Indian Market, see http://swaia.org/About_SWAIA/History/index.html
[4] This description was posted to an Events page on Facebook prior to the performance. It also appeared on a signboard in front of the museum.
[5] The eligibility of Native artists from Canada is a recent change to Indian Market rules.
[6] Artist Biographies were provided by the artists.