Over the past few years, Native Americans have become increasingly visible within the cultural mainstream in the United States. From the appointment of high-ranking government officials like Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, to the centering of Indigenous stewardship in the fight for climate resilience, to the popularity of hit television shows and podcasts like Reservation Dogs and The Red Nation—at long last, Native voices are finally being heard on their own terms.
The same is true within the art world. With major museum exhibitions, gallery shows, institutional leadership, sold-out art fair booths, and new Native-led arts initiatives like Forge Project and Ma’s House, we are currently seeing a wave of recognition for contemporary Native American artists.
From art world veterans who have been using their work to advocate for Native rights for decades to a younger generation of artists who are using traditional techniques to address contemporary issues, here is a list of some of the most influential Native American artists living and working today.
Jaune Quick-to-See Smith
In a 1982 interview with the Arizona Republic, Salish artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith said, “I look at line, form, color, texture, in contemporary art as well as viewing old Indian artifacts the same way. With this I make parallels from the old world to contemporary art. A Hunkpapa drum becomes a Mark Rothko painting; ledger book symbols become Cy Twomblys; a Naskaspi bag is a Paul Klee; a Blackfoot robe, Agnes Martin; beadwork color is Josef Albers; a parfleche is Frank Stella.”
Considered an esteemed elder in the Native art world, Smith has been creating her uniquely complex abstract paintings and prints since the 1970s. Her Native name, “Quick-to-See,” was bestowed by her Shoshone grandmother as a sign of the artist’s early ability to identify the world around her. This innate visual talent can be seen clearly in the way Smith appropriates pop cultural imagery and combines it with her own personal and political symbolism.
She has been commissioned to create a number of public artworks, including the terrazzo floor design of the Denver Airport; a mile-long sidewalk history trail in Seattle; and a memorial at the Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco, which was once the site of an Ohlone Indian burial ground. In 2020, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., purchased her iconic mixed-media painting I See Red: Target (1992), making it the first work by a Native American artist acquired by the museum. In addition to the National Gallery of Art, Smith’s work appears in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.Smith is represented by Garth Greenan Gallery.
From the mean streets of Manhattan to the mountain vistas of Mesa, Arizona, multimedia artist Brad Kahlhamer lives in two different worlds, making spiritual, cosmic, punk aesthetic–infused art. Through this alchemy, and by drawing on his own personal history and biography, Kahlhamer creates what he calls the “third place.”
Born in Tucson, Arizona, to Apache parents, Kahlhamer was adopted by a German family and raised in the nearby city of Mesa and, later, the state of Wisconsin. In 1982, Kahlhamer moved to New York and spent a decade as a touring musician, and 10 more years as a graphic designer for Topps Chewing Gum Company. Throughout that time, Kahlhamer continued to pursue his own artistic practice, creating ledger-like paintings that feature wild-braided Native people floating in a psychedelic swirl of teepees, coyotes, eagles, and cacti.
He recently signed with Garth Greenan Gallery, whose solo presentation of Kahlhamer’s work at this year’s Armory Show completely sold out. Next year promises to be a big one for the artist, with back-to-back solo museum shows at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art and the Tucson Museum of Art, and a debut solo exhibition with Garth Greenan Gallery that fall.
— Sandra Schulman