Even before one steps through the doors to the new temporary exhibition at Crystal Bridges Museum, art is already on display, drawing the viewer in to the ongoing conversation of what exactly constitutes American art. Art for a New Understanding: Native Voices, 1950s to Now challenges the viewer to consider the often neglected perspective of Indigenous peoples as part of the American experience, and further, what exactly modern Native art can be in that context.
"One of [the important things about the exhibition] is this insistence and, just, persistent voice that Native people are stuck in the past," co-curator Mindy Besaw told What's Up! in a previous interview. "They're very much alive, dealing with the same issues many of us are dealing with today. So [it's] that show of, 'We're here and this is our voice.' So how can we expand our notions of contemporary art when we look at contemporary art and issues through the Native lens?"
Some 80 pieces representing more than 40 Native communities across Canada and the United States -- from paintings and sculptures to textiles and performance art -- come together for a more inclusive survey of American art than is often presented in a museum setting. What's more, many of the representations of Native peoples in contemporary culture are often built around myths and stereotypes, or are a romanticizing of "the proud American Indian." These contemporary artists challenge and critique those conventions while reclaiming authorship of their own histories in this country.
"If the landscape in this work feels very familiar, that is because it's based on another beloved landscape painter," Besaw says of one of the large paintings in the exhibition. In his work History Is Painted by the Victors, Kent Monkman reimagines one of Hudson River School artist Albert Bierstadt's sweeping American landscapes. Monkman disputes the idea of Manifest Destiny by populating his work with images of a Native woman painting naked white men, including Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer.
"By using American history as that jumping off point to reverse that perspective and narrative, [Monkman] is playfully taking back authorship of this [moment]," Besaw continues.
Despite the potentially delicate nature of the historical themes at play throughout the exhibition, viewers may be surprised -- and perhaps relieved -- to know some pieces like Monkman's are meant to break the tension, in a way.
"It's OK to laugh," Besaw assures a silent tour group on a recent Thursday morning ahead of the exhibition's opening. Standing before Jaune Quick-to-See Smith's piece Trade (Gifts for Trading Land with White People) -- which facetiously suggests that perhaps Indigenous people can trade the trinkets bearing their stereotypical representations for the land white people "traded" centuries ago -- Besaw notes how playfulness is used as a point of connection in several works. "We see humor as a repeated element [used] to get to these narratives."
For "Native Voices," those narratives extend beyond the exhibition space, as well. An installation in the museum's courtyard is a time-based work titled Freeze, that will be on display until it melts away. And a few minutes to the southwest, at the corner of Second and Main streets on the downtown square, Tulsa-based artist Yatika Fields has completed a large-scale mural to remain in downtown Bentonville, even after the conclusion of the exhibition.
The mural "encompasses this exhibition, and it describes who I am as a Native artist, [and] it also describes who we are as people and our ability to survive," Fields shares. "When I come into a mural, I do it organically -- I don't do any sketches [before arriving]. I really see it and feel what it needs on site."
The mural occupies one of the walls of the building housing Cripps Law Firm. In working with the owner of the building, Fields decided to incorporate the image of Lady Justice with her blindfold and scales. In blending elements from his heritage, the piece speaks to the issues Indigenous communities -- and, truly, all people of color -- still face today, Fields says.
"The blindfold is coming open with the wind, [and] she's revealing the eye, kind of seeing the ills of society today," he explains. "It's a very communal piece, so it needs to speak to the level. And it's also facing the Confederate [statue] in the square, so it's kind of alleviating that tension, but also it's fighting [that] with beauty."
Following its debut at Crystal Bridges, the exhibition will travel to the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe, N.M., where former Crystal Bridges curator and exhibition co-curator Manuela Well-Off-Man is now the chief curator, then on to the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in North Carolina and the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in Tennessee.
– Jocelyn Murphy