Indigenous Perspectives on Indian Art

A Santa Fe curator discusses
the state of contemporary art by indigenous people

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Natural history, anthropology, ethnography, lifestyle, history, culture: these words are familiar to Indian artists because they are words that have been used in several ways as a descriptor of Indian art.

Despite its great diversity and complex aesthetic, contemporary Indian art is not well known except in very specific areas of the country. It is expressed in techniques common to the most recent 20th century art movements. However, traditional Indian art continues to have its place in the art community, most often classified in separate categories, distinct from other art forms.

Indian art is considered special. Separate museums or rooms within museums have been created for it . . . just as separate entities have been created for every major art expression and time period. There are Chinese rooms, Southeast Asia rooms, Medieval rooms, Romanticism rooms, Impressionist rooms, Abstract Expressionist rooms, Pop Art rooms, Native American Art rooms etc. . . each being an expression of an aspect of human creativity.

Within Indian art, there could also be a diversity of rooms: one for each cultural area or type of art object—moccasin rooms, basket rooms, blanket rooms, parfleche rooms, pictorial hide rooms etc. But these objects are rare; there are not enough to be relegated to separate rooms. The scarcity and high degree of aesthetic sophistication of such Indian art gives the objects great value from both an artistic as well as monetary standpoint.

Contemporary Indian art is in the mainstream of art being produced today, with Indian artists working in every major expression, producing art that is innovative, challenging, expressive. Nonetheless, Indian artists working in modern modes of expression will too often be told by museums or other exhibitors, "we don't exhibit Indian art." This is a narrow point of view which, unfortunately, "pigeon-holes" contemporary Indian artists who are not only involved in established art movements, but are also developing new movements that are distinctive and different from those being used by artists of the dominant culture.

Frequently, Indian art is regarded as part of a greater whole and not viable in its own right to be defined as "fine art." The greater whole in this case is the culture, the lifestyle, the history etc. Some believe Indian art maintains a cultural context from which it cannot be separated. Some claim that the art cannot be disconnected from the life of the people who made it; that no individual piece of Indian art can stand on its own merits in a museum of art, but would fit effectively in a museum of culture. Therefore, if it is exhibited in a museum, there must be a label to explain what is depicted and/or what it was used for and/or how it worked. Such labels are not generally found next to other examples of fine art.


Haozous Shrine

Bob Haozous
"Shrine" 1994
Painted steel
14' x 6' x 6'

A visitor to the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum in Santa Fe recently told me his opinion of a sculpture by Apache artist Bob Haozous. The visitor was offended. Rather than a confrontational statement about society by a contemporary Indian artist, the visitor had wanted to see fringed and beaded garments, feathered head-dresses and silver bracelets. Haozous had depicted, in his unique contemporary sculptural style, a figure with a cowboy hat inside a cage-like prison. The figure had simulated bullet holes though it and was identified as "White Man." A steel cutout of a skull with buffalo horns and a cross, also in the cage, was placed in front of the figure.

Some of the best contemporary art is controversial because it makes us think about consequences of our actions. Through this piece of artwork, Bob Haozous comments about humankind in general and about the destructive forces always present in society. Good art speaks to all of us. And we might not always like what it says. Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol upset people with their graphic portrayals of murder and death. More recently the neo-expressionists have made visual statements about sex and violence. Such art can bring us to a level of deeper understanding.

Art has a voice. It is created with the imagination and is just as much a part of humankind's makeup as are the tongue, mouth, larynx and lungs with which we speak.

Art heightens our awareness of the world around us; it can say something about what society is and what is has done and is capable of doing. A free society is kept in check by critics and visionaries, some of whom are artists.

Indian art is about society; it is about life; it is about culture; and it is also about change. It has a spiritual aspect that is better understood by the artist than by any other, because of continuing ties to centuries-old traditions. Living cultures do not stagnate. They change and develop, but those that are long-lasting also maintain tradition. Contemporary Indian art shows that tradition is not lost in new art forms, it is merely acted upon and used as a point of embarkation. In that way, the art maintains itself within cultures that try to consume it. That is why the spirit of Indian art seems pervasive. Through art, the traditions of Indian people will endure.

By Gary Allen Hood, a writer and contemporary art curator who has served as the Curator of Exhibits for the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum in Santa Fe.

Photograph courtesy of the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum remote

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe and Taos - Volume 4

Related Pages

Art at the Crossroads:
Art Without Reservations
American Indian Signs and Symbols article

Contemporary Expression of
Traditional Native American Art
A Sacred Place: Meditations on Corn article

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