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ON THE SCENE: ‘Hearts of Our People’

June 21, 2019
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

At a time when we see increased polarization in society, and the glorification of the individual over the collective, as evidenced by the stratospheric compensation paid to leaders in industry, sports and the arts, the exhibition, "Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists," now on display at the Minneapolis Museum of Art, stands in stark contrast.

On display are 117 works of art, along with videos, books, and illustrative photographs, curated by the museum's associate curator of Native American Art Dr. Jill Ahlberg Yohe and Teri Greaves, a Kiowa beadwork artist along with 21 advisers, of which about 17 were Native women artists from across the U.S. and Canada. The exhibition covers a thousand years of creativity.

We celebrate the gifts of a talent, be it a Steve Jobs who founded Apple and revolutionized how we listen to music, watch movies and use personal computers; actor Meryl Streep, who entirely becomes a different character depending on the role; Tiger Woods, who dominated golf; and the gifts of Lady Gaga, who is arching through the charts. But where would any of them be without the teachers who passed on their knowledge, the insights they gained from others in their field, and the accomplishments of hundreds before them on whose shoulders they stand.

Article Photos

Dakota Hoska, curatorial research assistant at left, and Michaela Baltasar, public relations of the Minneapolis Institute of Art
(Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

What comes through loud in clear in this exhibition is that Native women artists understand themselves as part of a continuum, a moment in time, that will lead to other advancements, developments, and forms of expression after they are gone. What also comes through, is the breadth of creativity and expression that they've been exploring and manifesting over 1,000 years, some quite abstract created hundreds of years before Jackson Pollack, Franz Kline and Mark Rothko.

That continuum was not only displayed by the individual works of art but how they were selected. Instead of one or two curators organizing the show as is commonplace in museums and galleries the world over, Yohe and Greaves recruited 21 advisers who had the final say on not just what art was included but on how it was exhibited and described.

In Western culture, the vast majority of art displayed, music heard, and movies seen has been created by men; their abilities are far more celebrated, compensated, and written about than the artistic achievements by women, and within that continuum, little attention has been given to the talent Native women. Not so in Native culture. Their women have a powerful and respected voice. An objective of the curators of "Hearts of Our People" is to highlight Native women's talent, artistic traditions, and approach to making art.

"Because there is no word for art in our culture specifically, many of us forget that in this culture, that we've come to adapt to, puts labels and titles on who we are and how we should be and then it creates a measure," said Mona Smith, Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota Oyate, in an introductory video. "In our way of life, the act of doing, creating, and sharing encourages a communal family approach to how we live our lives and to how we encourage each other. There is no scale, only a recognition of being a maker."

The exhibit is organized under three themes: Legacy, Relationships and Power. Legacy is described as providing for the transmission and skills from one generation to the next, a process that's intrinsic to the artistic process of Native women. That does not mean that one generation creates and decorates ceramic bowls or deerskin shirts the exact way of the previous generation, but rather that the techniques and aesthetics are passed on with the next generation building on that foundation while honoring those generations of makers who came before and passed on their skills and knowledge.

"My grandmother taught me how to think," said one dressmaker. "That's what has guided me. Even though we have so much in our culture, those things are still there. They instilled in me that this is a generational gift that needs to be passed on. It's wonderful for me to know that this is what my grandmother gave to me, and to carry on these traditions. How great is that, to carry forward something that was initially developed thousands of years ago that you can still do today."

Relationships align with the indigenous concept of connectivity and reciprocity that everything in the world, people, animals, places and living-nonliving elements are interconnected. Further, it underscores the importance of this balance and the danger of when that balance is disrupted. A compelling illustration was "Buffalo Bone China," a work of art by Dana Claxton. Her piece consists of video coupled with a circle of broken pottery, a metaphor for the near elimination of the buffalo by white people during the 19th century, a slaughter that profoundly impacted the way of life for thousands of Native Americans and the balance of the natural world.

Power reflects that Native world view that the ability to create life holds a sacred power. For Native women, that power is spiritual, social and political - a power that's expressed through several creations on display.

Rebecca Belmore's piece titled "Fringe" illustrates the violence and injustice against First Nations People. We see a woman lying prone whose back features a bleeding stitched up wound that goes diagonally from her right shoulder across her back to the left side of her hip.

While working on her Ph.D., which included researching many of collections of art by Native Americans, Yohe noticed that women's names were often not attached to the pieces they made. Further, she realized that there had never been an exhibition devoted to the work of Native women. She discussed her observations with Greaves, who confirmed Yohe's conclusions sharing her observations growing up in a trading post owned by her mother.

"Putting the exhibition together was a long creative, collaborative process," said Dakota Hoska, a curatorial research assistant. "Jill and Teri had this idea about five and a half years ago. The themes came from the advisory board. We came with some ideas that we thought would appeal to them, and they threw most of them out the window. Maybe one or two stuck. Originally, they gave us seven themes that we rolled into three. I've learned from this process that Native women are awesome. I already knew that, but this exhibition solidified that in my mind."

One of the overarching themes is honor, grace and power - the way you carry yourself in the world, which includes how you honor those who came before and provide for those who come after. Carrying yourself in a good way is very important to one's family, one's community, one's nation, and to this world - a vision timely to be told.

"Hearts of Our People" is on display until mid-August, then will move to Nashville, then to the Renwick in Washington, D.C. and conclude at the Philbrook in Tulsa, Oklahoma.



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