Changing Hands

By McFadden, David Revere | Southwest Art, August 2002 | Go to article overview

Changing Hands


McFadden, David Revere, Southwest Art


A major Native American art exhibit at the American Craft Museum

Changing Hands: Art Without Reservation, the first exhibit in a three-part series examining Native American arts in the Southwest, is on view at the American Craft Museum, New York, NY, through September 20. This groundbreaking series of exhibitions places contemporary Native American work in a broad context within current art and culture and includes works by 100 emerging and established artists, including cutting-edge work in clay, glass, fiber, jewelry, metal, and wood. The exhibit travels to the Museum of Texas Tech University, Lubbock, TX, October 13 through January 5, 2003, and the Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, OK, January 19 through March 16, 2003. Following is an excerpt from a catalog accompanying the exhibit by curator David Revere McFadden, published by Merrell Publisher Limited, London.

POTTER RICHARD ZANE SMITH SUMMED UP the tenor of the times as reflected in the work of Native American artists throughout the United States in a letter written last year: "Over time even our native cultures seem to accumulate a residue, an encrustation, a stiffening around a once-living and breathing pattern of daily life. If change is the essence of a living culture, where are our songs to buy a new car? Where is the blessing ceremony that welcomes a new computer into our homes? The artist, like the prophet (or heretic), comes testing the very fabric of tradition and picks at the frayed edges of the status quo. Sometimes gently as the female rains and sometimes in the rage of a tornado. But come they must, for the artist is given that special gift and can't be silent, for a living culture is like clay. The Native American artist has a tough job to convey both beauty and truth. But like never before, the world is watching with eager eyes."

Smith's perceptions of the power and persuasiveness of the changes redefining Native American art of this moment are in sympathy with broader developments in the arts in general. A change in the context in which Native work is viewed and reviewed involves larger issues in the trajectory taken by the visual arts of today. We are living through an exciting (and for some confusing) period in which boundaries between art forms and media have become more permeable, more interconnected, and more mutually stimulating than we have seen throughout the past century. There is a growing awareness of how the aesthetic, critical, and financial boundaries used to structure the visual arts are deteriorating.

Artists themselves are moving freely between modes of expression, materials, and techniques. Creative protagonists are proposing new art forms, and a broader spectrum of creative interaction among individuals in different fields is notable and newsworthy. The work exists, but we are only now developing a language of criticism and interpretation capable of responding. In this rich and provocative chorale of ideas and objects, new voices are being heard: Native American art and artists have now joined the mainstream, and museums, galleries, collectors, curators, and critics are paying attention.

Harbingers of these changes could be heard in the 1980s when work by innovative and nontraditional Native artists was noted by surprised and pleased critics and curators. The major presentations of Native art at such venues as the Santa Fe Indian Market and the Heard Museum Biennial began to encourage a rethinking of how Native artists were using their own cultural resources, histories, and legacies as an element in shaping this change. Journalist and critic Richard Nilsen, writing in the Arizona Republic, insightfully proclaimed in 1989, "It is time to dump the confining label of `Indian art.' The artists shown in the Heard Biennial are artists who draw on their heritage in the same way Picasso drew on his Spanish heritage. Most of the work in the biennial is work that may have roots in Indian culture but speaks to us about problems that are universal. …

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