FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - Contemporary Native artists address cultural appropriation, post-colonial acculturation and social dissonance at a Museum of Northern Arizona exhibit, "You Are on Indian Land," which also challenges views of what Native American art is.
The inspiration for the exhibition came from Erin Joyce, co-curator of the show, who grew up in and is familiar with the Southwest. She has worked with Native artists for several years. Joyce is an independent art curator. She found she wanted to break the stereotypes of what Native art looks like and what Indian art is supposed to be by showing more contemporary aspects of it.
The name of the exhibition, "You Are on Indian Land," comes from the 1969-1971 Indians From All Tribes and American Indian Movement (AIM) occupation of Alcatraz Island by John Trudell, among others, which began on Nov. 20, 1969, also the date the show opened in New York at Radiator Gallery.
"This show has a lot to do with Trudell and Dennis Banks and Russell Means and Dino Butler and Bob Robideau and all these very seminal figures within the American Indian community," Joyce said. "They have really been the impetus for a lot of this artwork and a lot of the themes that have been discussed in this show."
Those themes include contested landscapes, misappropriation of culture and, even more broadly, what the human condition is in the 21st century.
"It highlights that these are a contemporary people and they have contemporary ideas just like anybody else," Joyce said.
Alan Petersen, MNA's curator and co-curator of the show, said the artists are giving voice and image to the things the members of AIM were protesting and vocalizing in the 1960s and 70s.
"They are topics that make a lot of people uncomfortable," he said. "For the longest time and still by many people are swept under the proverbial carpet. These aren't just Indian issues, or Hispanic issues or black issues, they are everybody's issues, one way or another. I'd like to think that the more they are aired and discussed...it can presumably lead to greater understanding."
Petersen said the museum has had a history with local Native American artists for generations and much of the museum's collection is very traditional, from basketry, ceramics and textiles. It is also traditional, as it was viewed in the 20th century where the art originated or was inspired by artists' work at the Sante Fe Indian School, which sometimes included work that was not traditionally Native American art.
He acknowledged that the public perception of Native art is skewed sometimes by what became popular by the mid-20th century, which was heavily promoted by large corporations, and, therefore, accepted by Anglo artists and the public.
"I've always really liked art that pushes the envelope... and that really addresses the truth in a direct manner," Petersen said. "The other thing I really liked about this idea for the exhibit is I think that in Flagstaff we've become very comfortable with that ... traditional view of Native American art and, personally, I prefer art that makes me a little uncomfortable and makes me question just what the envelope of any given concept or issues is. I immediately saw that in [this exhibit] and I thought, 'yes, this is for us.'"
The show uses some traditional materials but in a non-traditional presentation, including photography, assemblage sculptures, installation pieces and video work. The art challenges the viewer to see deeper into issues surrounding what it means to be indigenous today and how the struggle for identity, sovereignty and land remains complicated in a world where Native art and Native issues are still not understood by much of the population.
"One of the things that really struck me the most was when the show opened up in New York, I had people coming up to me and saying, 'I didn't know Indian art looked like this,' and [we are trying to] break those stereotypes and break down those barriers," Joyce said.
While Joyce said in some ways stereotypes are the gateway to understanding another culture because they give people a broad brush of what that culture might be, the danger is stopping at those stereotypes and not pushing beyond them.
"Which is most of the time," Joyce said. "I think the voice in the American Indian rights movement has really shifted in many ways to the arts. Even though this is very challenging work for many people who come to see it, it is digestible to them. They can try and process it and understand what the works mean. I think they are activists in their own way."
The exhibit features work by: Tamara Ann Burgh (Eskimo), Nicholas Galanin (Tlingit/Aleut), Ed Kabotie (Hopi-Tewa), Cannupa Luger (Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara and Lakota), Michael Namingha (Hopi-Tewa), Steven Yazzie (Navajo), and interdisciplinary arts collective Postcommodity, which includes Raven Chacon (Navajo), Kade L. Twist (Cherokee Nation) and Cristobal Martinez (Chicano).
Petersen selected some of the artists. Namingha, Burgh and Kabotie are part of MNA's permanent collection and others were selected by Joyce because of her familiarity with their work or because she worked with the artist before.
The exhibit was shown at the IAIA Native American Museum of Art in Sante Fe in May. MNA is the exhibition's final stop and the show runs until Feb. 15, 2016.