Art for a New Understanding: Native Voices, 1950s to Now

Through Jan. 12, 2020

Hip-hop concert: Thursday, Oct. 24, 7 p.m.

The Nasher Museum of Art, Durham

When museums have approached Indigenous art at all, they’ve usually done so as history rather than as living tradition. As heather ahtone describes in an essay in the Nasher Museum of Art’s exhibition catalogue for Art for a New Understanding: Native Voices, 1950s to Now, no less of a bellwether than the Metropolitan Museum of Art was praised as groundbreaking simply for adding Indigenous art to its American Wing.

This wasn’t a misty, benighted Met of yore. It was 2017.

“How can this continent’s first inhabitants be so late to receive recognition for their art?” ahtone asks, finding one answer in “the presumed imminent demise of Native cultures.” In the twentieth century, American ethnographers raced to salvage the remnants of pre-Columbian cultures before their supposed authenticity became irreversibly tainted. The bitter irony of modernity’s effort to save cultures it had sought to destroy—and submit them to its mania for categorization—hardly needs underlining.

Until recently, Indigenous people in the U.S. and Canada, the exhibit’s purview, were more likely to be represented as objects than as subjects in art contexts, from their corpses being displayed in nineteenth-century history museums to their sentimental representation by twentieth-century painters like Thomas Kinkade. In the white gaze, they have been idealized, infantilized, and fetishized with the unexamined paternalism of conquerors who refuse to see themselves as such.

This is thin stuff to paper over the monstrous crime on which the U.S. was founded. In his lit fuse of an essay, “Indian Art for Modern Living,” Comanche author Paul Chaat Smith identifies our love of Native American kitsch as an “elaborate coping mechanism” that renders the American psyche dissonant, even incomprehensible.

“Indians are the secret sauce that made the transplanted English special, and they knew it,” he writes. “Without Indians, they were just Brits on a long and mostly miserable camping trip.”

Our eagerness to look and our refusal to see is endemic to modern art, as well. Idioms such as Surrealism and minimalism drew inspiration from the patterns and colors of Indigenous art, often through a patronizing primitivistic lens, even while the art world categorized the source material as something other, and distinctly subordinate.

In the exhibition catalog’s title essay, co-curators Mindy N. Besaw, Candice Hopkins, and Manuela Well-Off-Man detect Indigenous influences even where they’re all but invisible, such as in the minimalist light sculptures of Donald Judd, whose Marfa studio was filled with Indigenous artworks and artifacts.

Art for a New Understanding launched late last year at the young and fearless Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas before moving to the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in New Mexico and then to The Nasher. The exhibit is a powerful corrective. Instead of moribund and pitiable, it showcases Indigenous modern artists in all their vitality, humor, and savvy. It breaks apart the idea that “Native American art” is a monolithic thing, entombed in history, rather than the living work of many different nations with distinct traditions, all interlaced with modernity. And it shows how much Indigenous people contributed to a modern-art world in which white artists took what they wanted and locked the door behind them.

Suddenly, instead of only seeing the traces of Indigenous art on modern art (behind Jackson Pollock’s drips, the ghost of Diné sandpainting), we also see the influence of modern art on Indigenous artists, which has seldom, if ever, been considered so fully.

If Art for a New Understanding has a key work, it’s “Dance of the Heyoka,” a 1954 watercolor by Oscar Howe. Faces and torsos fluidly fragment into glowing pinks and deep blues, not unlike in the more figurative paintings of de Kooning. Aptly, considering what Howe was about to do, the subject is a Lakota spirit who shows people the error of their ways.

Howe, who lived from 1915 to 1983, embodies the cultural evolution of Indigenous modern art. Like many Indigenous artists, he attended Dorothy Dunn’s Studio School in Santa Fe in the 1930s, where white people taught Indigenous artists how to paint in a flat, decorative “Native style” with sentimental themes—the prancing deer, the mighty bison—and, tellingly, without context.

“The studio style usually has a blank background, just figures without depth or perspective,” says Marshall N. Price, the modern and contemporary curator at The Nasher, while touring the exhibit with co-curator Besaw, who had come from Crystal Bridges for the opening at the end of August.

Howe was part of a wave of midcentury Indigenous artists who jettisoned the studio style to drink deeply from the wells of Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, and other modern isms, though he found as much inspiration for them in Indigenous art, which had always been intelligent and profound, as he did in modern art.

“There is much more to Indian art than pretty stylized pictures,” Howe wrote. “… Indian Art can compete with any art in the world, but not as a suppressed Art.”

This was part of a letter that Howe sent to the Philbrook Museum of Art in Oklahoma in 1958, which had rejected one of his paintings from its Annual National Indian Painting Competition because it was not “traditional Indian art.” His complaint became the first manifesto of Indigenous modern art.

Howe was part of a revolution that took place between the well-meaning, wrong-headed federal arts-funding initiatives of The New Deal and the pivotal establishment of the Institute of American Indian Arts in 1962, which replaced Dunn’s outdated studio school in Santa Fe with a site of experimentation and self-definition. Fritz Scholder was one of IAIA’s early leading faculty members. After refusing to paint Indigenous figures early in his career, the Luiseño artist tapped into Pop Art to become one of their most provocative deconstructionists.

Indigenous artists increasingly self-organized and politicized in the 1970s; some also attended prestigious art schools that fed them into the mainstream. By the 1980s, you could find Jenny Holzer-like conceptual art by Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds—whose distinctively furred block capital letters can be seen in one of his famous “wall lyrics” in the exhibit—on an electronic billboard in Times Square.

But inclusion was still the exception to the rule. According to Besaw, Daphne Odjig, the pioneering Indigenous artist and exhibitor from Ontario whose Cubist rendering of the Ojibwe trickster Nanabajou is in the exhibit, was still being rejected by galleries in the 1970s when she submitted under her own name and accepted when she used her husband’s European name. But by the nineties, Indigenous artists who had once felt compelled to either deeply identify with or deny their heritage were embracing hybrid identities and taking aim at colonial legacies.

This entire trajectory is represented in the exhibit, though half of it focuses on work made after 2000, as befits its effort to pull Indigenous art into the present. The time is ripe, as intersectional identities have come to be prized rather than obscured.

The white supremacy inherent in museums has only begun to erode. It instantly problematizes any exhibit that dares to wade into Indigenous art, which is why so few have dared.

As Chaat Smith writes, Arkansas’s Crystal Bridges has been “confounding art critics from the coasts with shows engaging the problematics of American art that are as smart and surprising as any being staged anywhere.” The museum consulted Indigenous people about how to present national and tribal affiliations.    

“It just really felt important to make sure that visitors weren’t seeing this as one monoculture, that this is ‘Native American art,’ because it’s not,” Besaw says. “They all have different cultural identities and backgrounds.”

Crystal Bridges also focus-grouped the exhibit before opening it and found telling divergent reactions among Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Asked about their expectations, the non-Indigenous groups mentioned beadwork, headdresses, and earth tones, and then came out of the exhibit with keywords such as contemporary, abstraction, and color.

“What that told us is that we had a lot of work to do to help people understand what the exhibition was,” Besaw says, and claims that the Indigenous groups went in with concerns about a stereotypical exhibition but came out with positive impressions.

But the distance between Indigenous and non-Indigenous frames of reference can’t be closed, only plunged into. At the Nasher, you’ll find the impression of a body on a bed of sand and other documentation of James Luna’s pioneering performance-art piece, “The Artifact Piece,” first performed in 1987. In it, Luna laid in the sand like an exhibit in a Victorian anthropology museum.

“When we showed this to the non-Native groups, they were like, ‘Oh, I don’t know, how will that impact your school tours and sensitivity and things like that?’” Besaw says. “The Native groups laughed and said, ‘That’s so great, James Luna’s famous performance.’ So how do you design an exhibition when you’re responding to completely uninitiated audiences and you’re near the border of Oklahoma, where there are around one hundred federally recognized tribes?”

The answer is that you just do it, in the hope that other institutions will do more, better. Otherwise, it won’t get done. One exhibit won’t heal the wound in America’s heart or the hole in modern-art canon, but Art for a New Understanding builds up a bit more scar tissue around the edges.

Given that the show is layered in biases and marinated in painful history, I have a suggestion about how to look at it. Start—perhaps before the concert in the new sculpture garden, headlined by Lakota hip-hop artist Frank Waln, on October 24—by looking at it as a show of modern art. This works great, because it’s a splendid one, full of familiar reference points. You’ll see Van Gogh gone Pop in the T.C. Cannon’s painting, Jasper Johns recast in geometric severity in Kay WalkingStick’s encaustics, a Rauschenberg-like combine by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, an Op Art tapestry by Melissa Cody, and the Basquiat-like tough virtuosity of Fritz Scholder.

And you’ll find American pop culture as you know it, but not as you’ve ever seen it before, from Brian Jungen’s sculptures of Nike sneakers that evoke ceremonial masks to Walter Scott’s existentialist comic strips.

Then, with the works situated in art history, take time to learn more about the artists, each of whom has a story that peels back layers of American illusion over the past century. But don’t mistake the artist for the person or the symbol—hold contradiction in your mind. As the Denesuline artist Alex Janvier said, “I am an artist who happens to be an Indian. I am an Indian self that is identified with the great spirit and not with the art.”

Contact arts and culture editor Brian Howe at 

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