Native Art Now! Developments in Contemporary Native American Art since 1992

By Tyquiengco, Marina | Art Inquiries, Annual 2018 | Go to article overview

Native Art Now! Developments in Contemporary Native American Art since 1992


Tyquiengco, Marina, Art Inquiries


Native Art Now! Developments in Contemporary Native American Art Since 1992

Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art Indianapolis, Indiana

November 11, 2017-January 28, 2018

Native Art Now! Developments in Contemporary Native American Art Since 1992 ambitiously and successfully positioned Native art as a force within contemporary art. The 39 works were created by Native American and First Nations artists from the United States and Canada: some well-known, some mid-career, some quite young--but all current or former Eiteljorg Contemporary Art Fellows. The use of "Now!" in the title stressed the very contemporary look of the exhibition, which included many installation-format and mixed-media works. Conceptualizing change in contemporary Native art as "developments" emphasized the expansiveness and fluidity of this production. In concept and artwork selection Native Art Now!, curated by the Eiteljorg's Jennifer Cumplo McNutt, was evocative of the growing trend of major contemporary exhibitions of indigenous art. (1) What makes this contemporary art Native is the artists themselves, their family histories and lived experiences, rather than any shared stylistic or material characteristics.

The exhibition occupied the lower-level temporary gallery of the museum (fig. 1). The space was dimly lit, providing some solemnity in an otherwise modern, white-cube space. The Eiteljorg Fellowship of Contemporary Art has been awarded to numerous artists over the past 20 years, creating the potential for a sprawling encyclopedic exhibition, using many works to demonstrate the disparate career trajectories of fellows. Instead, Native Art Now! was restrained in limiting each artist to one series or one work and thoughtful in its inclusion of ample background information on the works and artists in text labels.

Indigenizing gestures were abundant in the exhibition. The introductory text began with the statement, "More Native contemporary artists are receiving the recognition they deserve, their contributions to contemporary art are less marginalized after years of challenging the art world to critically acknowledge their work." The Fellowship was created in part to close the gap in this marginalization, yet it is still necessary as relatively few Native artists are shown in major exhibitions. Most works presented here were paired with explanatory panels and statements by the artists about their work--effectively making them a presence in the show. Creating presence was also achieved through framed artist photographs and biographies, though somewhat less successfully. The format of these wooden-framed biographies, in rows of six to eight with sepia-toned artist headshots to the left and text to the right, seemed rather outmoded compared to the expansive nature of the artwork. Due to the size of each work, some biographies were located quite far from the artist's contribution, creating potential confusion for viewers. Separating these biographies into individual panels placed near the artworks would have allowed for presence in a more streamlined fashion.

The works themselves were well positioned, beginning with Anima (In-Between Worlds series) (2012). This is a digital, bust-length self-portrait of one of the youngest artists included, Meryl McMaster (born 1988). Covered in white makeup and butterflies, she stands in the bright whiteness of what appears to be a snowy field. The ethereal work is visually striking and meaningful, as McMaster uses "in-betweenness" to evoke her ethnic background, which is Plains Cree and Blackfoot as well as Dutch and English. The work served as a useful introduction to this exhibition of contemporary art addressing Native themes and identity.

McMaster's work also served to disrupt the general format of three-dimensional works placed in the center of the gallery and two-dimensional works along the peripheral walls (fig. 2). The openness of the space enabled the creation of dramatic sightlines from the entry and exit points of the space. …

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