Art at the Crossroads
Art without Reservations

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American Indian art . . .
American Indian artist . . .

What, if anything, do those terms mean today?

Is an "Indian artist" a woman who lives in a Pueblo village, fashioning pottery according to ancient rules? Is her pottery no longer "Indian art" if she fires bowls in a kiln, rather than by more "traditional" methods?

How about modern, avant-garde paintings, sculpture, pottery and jewelry created by artists of Indian descent? Is that Indian art?

Or have we reached a point where the walls of ethnically based separation tumble down, so that today's artists may be seen as precisely that: artists, without reservations?

Look at the paintings of Frank LaPeña, Fritz Scholder, George Longfish, Harry Fonseca, T. C. Canon, Dan Namingha, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith and Kay Walkingstick. Inspect the work of sculptors John Hoover, George Morrison, and Bob Haozous. Or the pottery of Jody Folwell, Al Qöyawayma, and Nathan Youngblood.

Is their work -- reflecting the shattering of cultural barriers that took place during the 1960s and 1970s -- exclusively "Indian"? Or is it less the product of a particular tribe and more inclusively contemporary? Increasingly, innovators such as these see themselves more as "artists who are Indian" than as "Indian artists." There is more at work here than semantics, for that distinction signals a virtual sea change in attitudes.

This brings up some sensitive points . . .

Is a lady from a Pueblo village who sells pottery on the Plaza at Santa Fe an "Indian artist"?

Are paintings in a gallery, made by a resident of San Francisco whose great-great grandmother was Choctaw, the work of an "Indian artist"?

Can modernistic works, unrelated or only tangentially linked to long-standing tribal themes, qualify as "Indian art"?

Can an artist with Indian ancestry be anything else but an "Indian artist"?

What difference does it make if an artist is, or is not, Indian?

Who, exactly, is Indian?

Can non-Indian artists incorporate tribal themes and motifs into their art?

Are a potter's jars inherently better (or worse) because she is (or is not) able to meet the one-sixty-fourth blood-quantum requirement some tribes use for establishing membership?

Does anyone today really fault the late Don Smith, of Cherokee ancestry, for assuming the name Lelooska and carving Northwest Coast-style sculptural headgear? (Consider African masks' influence on Pablo Picasso's imagination or the impact Tlingit totem poles along with Hopi and Zuni kachina dolls exerted on Max Ernst's endeavors).

What ever happened to the idea of viewing an artist's output as the work of a talented individual, without ethnic or genetic qualifiers, or hyphenated identities?

Do such inherently limiting designations as "Indian art" and "Indian artist" run counter to the cross-cultural discussions currently taking place on a global scale? Contemporary painter Mario Martinez, for example, describes himself as tricultural; the product of formative years spent growing up in Phoenix, Arizona, member of a Yaqui community surrounded by Anglo and Mexican influences. Consider the implications of his words: "For many years my work has been a synthesis of Western modernist visual traditions and concepts with images rooted in my Yaqui Indian heritage."

Martinez's view is dramatically reinforced when you reflect upon the multicultural exuberance displayed in the works of a legion of contemporary painters, potters, sculptors and jewelers whose work is not limited by association with a particular tribe or tradition, but networked into a pan-cultural ethos.

"I consider myself very much a modern Pueblo Indian. I have the values, the ideas that are passed down, but I live in a not-so-traditional world," says Jodi Naranjo, whose pottery is etched with such images as dancing figures, turtles and other animals, even Martians. "I try and mix traditional shapes with a contemporary design, or traditional designs on a contemporary shape."

Within the context of clearly contemporary art it is difficult to understand what "Indian art" can possibly mean, other than serving as a statement about the artist's ethnicity.

While some art eloquently reflects a particular culture, much of what today's artists of American Indian ancestry produce is pan-cultural. In such conditions, is not the art, like the artist, cosmopolitan? Is it really necessary for collectors and galleries, curators and museums to engage in a perhaps too parochial passport inspection at the doorway to the hall of acceptance?

To be sure, some artists benefit from the "Indian art" label, for patrons may purchase works because of "Indian" qualities. Yet other artists suffer, forever pigeonholed into a hard-edged slot for purely cultural or genetic reasons.

The barriers against accepting these artists on their own terms remain formidable. We live, after all, with the residual effects of too long regarding Indians from a clinical, anthropological perspective, seeing older works of art as "specimens," examples of a "craft," one of the "arts and crafts." In each instance, the "craft" qualifier served as a killer: lowly crafts fashioned by the untutored underclass and/or members of cultures located somewhere out there beyond the realm of the truly acceptable, fell far short of the vaunted standards established by academic, well-mannered art. Even today, many of the larger publicly-displayed collections of tribal art are located in museums of anthropology and natural history, keeping company with stuffed animals and dinosaur bones.

Then, too, there is the problem of the White Man's Indian: non-Indians defining who and what is, or is not, "Indian." And so, even now, many artists with tribal affiliations are presented, perceived, and received as illuminated shamans, freshly arrived from the Arcadian heartland; somewhat ethereal, fundamentally unreal, romantic; Hiawathas in hightops; familiar, neatly pigeonholed and culturally safe.

Yet America's is a profoundly multicultural society in every sense of that term, and becoming even more so. In terms of art, this translates into an ongoing process whereby cross-pollination is the watchword.

Artists, collectors, those who work in galleries and museums, need to think about the old labels and how they fit, or do not fit, with contemporary realities. The questions will be hard, and the resulting discussions sometimes heated. For nothing less is required than a frequently painful yet always promising stretching of the bonds of ethnicity; not to the point of meaninglessness, but, rather, to a new level of meaning.

Here is something to be embraced as an exciting opportunity, not feared as a good-bad, either-or, us-them situation. To ignore the birth of something quite wonderful in one's own backyard would be to turn our backs on an opportunity of commanding magnitude.

The time has come for all of us to start loosening our feet from the griping muck of ethnic parochialism and cultural paternalism -- time to attune ourselves to World Art's commanding presence. For we have reached a kind of threshold, a point of no return, from which there is no turning back. What we are witnessing today is nothing less than the art of many traditions, and the visions of many artists, connecting into a World Art that eloquently addresses our most fundamental concerns.

Thanks to Dr. Ron McCoy, Emporia State University.

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe and Taos - Volume 12

Related Pages

American Indian Signs and Symbols article

Poetry of the Pueblo Dances article
Who are the Pueblo Indians? A Primer article

Collector’s Resources


Wright's Indian Art | 505-266-0120

Santa Fe

Andrea Fisher Fine Pottery | 505.986.1234
The Rainbow Man | 505-982-8706
Sherwoods Spirit of America | 505-988-1776
Wadle Galleries Ltd pic 128 West Palace Ave | 505-983-9219


Bryans Gallery 121 Kit Carson Road | 575-758-9407
Millicent Rogers Museum | 575-758-2462


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