Exhibit of the week
Hearts of Our People: Native American Women Artists
Minneapolis Institute of Art, through Aug. 18
“The very idea of a Native women’s exhibition in an art museum is radical”—more radical than you might think, said Alicia Eler in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Western notions about art and artists, after all, had no meaning in traditional native cultures, and until now, no museum had highlighted the possibility that, by Western definitions, 90 percent of all the art produced in those cultures was created by women. Women are the potters, weavers, and basket makers. And when the Minneapolis Institute of Art decided it was time to honor their output, it also had to recognize that the objects are often seen as living things that can’t be torn from the communities without rupturing meaning. An unprecedented effort to mount the show sensitively has paid off. Visit the exhibition and you’ll be “immersed in a way of creating, making, and being that is outside of Western ideas about art.”
Beaded stilettos by Jamie Okuma (2012)
The first object visitors see is a surprise, said Kathy Berdan in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. A customized 1985 Chevy El Camino, it was created by Pueblo artist Rose B. Simpson as a tribute to New Mexico low-rider culture and to 20th-century potter Maria Martinez, who revived an ancient style of patterned black-on-black ceramics. Simpson even assembled its engine, but insists the fully roadworthy car is not finished—because Native art is living, and when it’s done it must return to the earth. The El Camino is followed by galleries showcasing painting, photography, and the expected ancient ware, and it signals the need to reconsider the line between art and craft, said Jonathon Keats in Forbes.com. The West views utility as antithetical to art, but utility is central here. The El Camino must run and the baskets must port goods because they are made to tie people to one another as well as to ancestors who passed down the craft. Though no single object can contain all the values that explain the Native art tradition, “one contemporary basket comes astonishingly close”: Artist Cherish Parrish wove black ash and sweetgrass into the elegant form of a pregnant woman’s torso—honoring the unique role of women in transmitting culture.
Men have a role, too, said Tess Thackara in The New York Times. They’ve “generally been the history keepers, creators of figurative art with a narrative thrust, and carvers of wooden masks and totem poles.” Native women have been pioneers in the realms they dominate, though. “Thousands of years before Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman began looking at Native work and became heroes of American abstraction, indigenous women represented the world in patterns, lines, and shapes.” It’s time to learn from those women again. ■