Published  14/01/2013

A Redefining Moment in the History of Native American Art

A Redefining Moment in the History of Native American Art

Changing Hands: Art Without Reservation 3
Contemporary Native North American Art from the Northeast and Southeast
Museum of Arts and Design, New York City
26 June–21 October 2012


When the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York conceived of its decade-long project of exhibiting Native American art from every region of North America, the original concept was tied to a venerable tradition: the passing of art and craft practices hand-to-hand, from one generation to the next. With two well-received shows behind them, organisers Ellen Taubman, an independent specialist in Native American art, and David Revere McFadden, MAD’s chief curator, discovered that with the third and final installment, Changing Hands: Art Without Reservation 3 – on view at MAD until 21 October 2012 and then travelling to venues in the US and Canada – the definition of “changing hands” had acquired new meaning.1 The show spotlights contemporary Native North American art from the Northeast and Southeast, including Inuit and Metis, made by 80 artists. Most of the art has been created in the last few years, and some works were commissioned specifically for this exhibition.

Changing Hands: Art Without Reservation 1, which opened at MAD in 2002, gathered Native art, craft, and design from the American Southwest; Changing Hands 2, displayed at MAD in 2005, covered artists from regions west of the Mississippi River, including Alaska, Hawaii, and Northwest Canada.2 During the decade in which Taubman, McFadden, and their team developed the project, the electronic revolution not only broadened the scope of Native American art but facilitated access to artists living in remote locations in the US, Pacific Rim, and Canada. Today, Native American artists have their own web pages. They can be reached through Facebook and LinkedIn, and followed on Twitter. No longer limited to the still-influential Native American art markets and fairs, their work is being purchased by major art collectors and shown in museums and galleries in large cities in the US and overseas.

Until fairly recently, many Native Americans received much of their training at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA). Established in 1962, IAIA has fostered the talents of many subsequently successful artists but outside of IAIA, there have been few opportunities for them to earn degrees from prestigious, mainstream academies and universities. With additional educational opportunities currently available to them, Native artists are exhibiting their work in contexts that do not necessarily focus on Native American history, concerns, and traditions. For example, at MAD, the curators chose not to identify tribal associations on gallery labels, allowing artists to express in their artist statements, if they wished, how such ties inform what they do. Also notable, Taubman and McFadden decided not to show, along with contemporary work, art and artifacts from other eras, a practice that has been typical in the past.

The Changing Hands series (CH) may be at an end, yet such works as KC Adams’s IPhone Communication Bytes and IPad is Cree Floral, in which 21st-century technology is dressed with glass seed beads Native American style, and Frank Shebageget’s Cell, a 96 x 96 in (243.8 x 243.8 cm) construction of nylon and aluminium, indicate that Native American art has reached a crossroads and is about to venture into new territory. Without sacrificing what is, for many of the artists, a moral imperative to keep the story of their people alive and relevant, they are redefining the term “contemporary Native American art” for themselves and the public. As doors open for artists and audiences alike, the “changing of hands” will occur across borders: ethnic, social, cultural, and economic.

To understand the critical role played by CH in the contemporary Native American art movement, Studio International spoke with CH guest curator Ellen Taubman, who began her career in 1973 at Sotheby’s. Taubman pioneered Sotheby’s Native American art department and went on to oversee American Indian and Tribal Art there until 1998.3

Cindi Di Marzo: In the CH3 catalogue, you explain that the original vision for the series – craft traditions handed down through families to succeeding generations – has had to expand to accommodate 21st-century social, economic, political, and technological shifts. The “revisionist wheels” keep turning, as you say, affecting art philosophy, criticism, and process. From your long view in the field, can you describe the greatest changes in how contemporary Native American artists are getting work, literally, from their hands to the mainstream?

Ellen Taubman: Certainly, there is more information available, online and through public exhibitions, although shows are far more prevalent in Canada than in the United States. And there is a new generation of indigenous curators, artists, and scholars who are working diligently to get the information out there in all types of ways. The main challenge continues to be stereotyping and what seems to be a real hesitation to accept contemporary Native art, wanting to hold on to the romance of the 19th century, and ideas about what Native art is supposed to be rather than what it is in its most contemporary form. There is no reason one has to be erased to accept the other; all are part of a continuing culture.

CDM: The show is divided into three sections: Evolution and Exploration, Natural Selection, and Historical Provocation/Decoding History. Can you explain how these frameworks can shape our understanding of contemporary Native American art?

ET: As with CH1 and CH2, the clustering of works in CH3 is intentional; that is, to provide viewers with some context of approach, although these themes are quite broad and can be subjective, based on the individual and his or her own impressions, and that is part of the intention as well. A good number of the artworks in the exhibition would likely fit into one or more of the three groupings, depending on the perspective. There is meant to be an overall fluidity to the exhibition, with a wide breadth of materials, techniques, mediums, etc., as that is what characterises contemporary Native art, as it characterises contemporary art as a whole. The three general themes are part of a larger overview of contemporary art but, perhaps, they offer a place from which people can begin to re-evaluate or reconsider the artwork and artists from this region.

CDM: While the insertion of modern technology and culture into Native American art is, sometimes, startling, I notice that traditional forms and materials hold their weight in the dialogue. For instance, Wanesia Misquadace’s use of birch bark biting in her Essence of the Lake canisters, and other artists making bandolier bags, cradleboards, and baskets, and working with clay, wood, beads, and bone. Can you identify a few artists who bridge the gap in unusual ways?

ET: It was important to us to give equal weight, whenever possible, to long-established forms and materials, along with new and alternative media and formats. Having really wanted to include examples of birch bark biting from the outset of organising this exhibition, I had been watching Wanesia's work. I was not able to identify anything [of hers] that was appropriate for our exhibition until last year, when she first introduced the notion of the container. Within a short time, she was on her way to creating an entirely new body of work.
Donald “Babe” Hemlock and his adaptation of the cradleboard, which he beautifully painted with a modern scene of a Mohawk iron worker in lieu of the more traditional clan emblems and floral decoration, is another piece that was generated by a conversation [with an artist] about the exhibition, our intentions, and the type of work that we were seeking. When the artists are challenged, they can take things to an entirely new level. Barry Ace's reinvention of the bandolier [bag] is equally compelling.

CDM: Another facet of some works is tongue-in-cheek humour and lighthearted surprise. One of my favourite works in the show is Tammy Tarbell’s Ceramic Strawberry Whimsey, which looks like a soft, beaded pillow but is made of clay. Have you noticed more Native artists using humour in their work?

ET: Humour has been an essential aspect of Native work for decades and has been the focus of several exhibitions. (eg the 1994 travelling exhibition Indian Humor, organised by the American Indian Contemporary Arts Gallery in San Francisco). It is often subtle. There have been aspects of humour in the three CH exhibitions: Darrell Jumbo in CH1; David Bradley in CH2; and artists like Tammy Tarbell, Kent Monkman, and Richard Glazer-Danay, to name a few in CH3.

CDM: Gail Tremblay’s It Was Never About Playing Cowboys and Indians really got to me. Can you speak about Tremblay’s weaving of recycled film from a documentary about Native children in her baskets rather than a traditional, organic material, and how she questions Hollywood stereotypes of Native Americans by confounding visual expectations?

ET: I, too, was struck by Gail's piece, not only for the content but the scale. These baskets [Onondaga and Micmac basketry] are rarely this large. The size of Gail’s basket itself makes a statement. If one simply looks in the exhibition catalogue and reads the dimensions (approximately 24 inches (61cm) in height and 14 inches (35.6 cm) in diameter), I don't think one is really prepared for the impact of seeing this work in person. There is a good deal of intellectual thought that went into the work before its execution, and this is what makes it so outstanding.

CDM: In the catalogue essay “Notes on the Critical Practice of Native American Art”, Professor Libby Lumpkin of the University of New Mexico describes the “invisible fences” and “cozy blankets” perpetuating stereotypes. You chose only contemporary works for the CH shows, unlike other exhibitions in museums and galleries that have attempted to add context by placing contemporary art alongside historical objects and traditionally made handcrafted items like baskets and jewellery.

ET: Yes, we decided that we did not need to use historical objects to justify contemporary work, and this is a different approach to what has been typical for Native art exhibitions.

CDM: Please describe the sea change that occurred between CH1 and CH3 regarding finding and communicating with artists in the shows?

ET: CH1 was totally new and different. We were establishing the parameters and in some ways learning as we went, looking for the new and unknown, and trying to establish new ground rules. Communicating with the artists was difficult; people did not have cell phones as readily as they do now, nor were they Internet savvy. Many of the artists were of an older generation but they were trying to do new things. More often than not, work was not documented in terms of where it went after it left an artist's hands. This situation did not seem significant to the artists then. Today, the situation has changed but not universally. The internet, Facebook, and institutions that allow access to their collections have become important resources for finding artists. It remains a challenge. I joined Facebook solely to find artists and it was incredibly helpful. Word-of-mouth was equally useful and, as with CH1 and CH2, there were many individuals who were generous with their time and experience. They are acknowledged in the catalogue for CH3.

CDM: In June, you participated in an event at the New York branch of Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), where works by the 2011 recipients of the Eiteljorg Contemporary Art Fellowship are being displayed.4 Can you share with our readers a few insights gleaned at the event?

ET: It was a collaboration between Kathleen Ash-Milby, associate curator of contemporary art at the NMAI, GGHC [the George Gustav Heye Center] here in New York City and me on the occasion of the Eiteljorg Fellowship's first exhibition, which opened simultaneously with CH3 and shares several artists: Alan Michelson, Bonnie Devine, and Skawennati. Another artist in the Eiteljorg show, Duane Slick, was featured in CH2. The intention of panel discussions was to create a dialogue on contemporary art with Native artists focusing on aesthetics and criticism and how these works fit into the broader context of contemporary art as a whole. The participant response was strong and the regret is that time was short.

CDM: The major 2011 exhibition of indigenous art – Close Encounters: The Next 500 Years – and a name change in 2008 for the IAIA Museum to the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) signal efforts to redefine contemporary Native American art.5 Is the momentum building?

ET: [The evolution] has been slow – far slower in the US than in Canada – but there have been changes that are being acknowledged and celebrated. There is a need for larger institutions to create new frameworks and in order to do this the curatorial perspective needs to be revised.

CDM: The Changing Hands series serves as an inspiring example of doing just that by redefining the way this art is exhibited and discussed. Thank you for speaking with me about the series and the dynamic field of contemporary Native American art.

1. Full-colour softcover catalogues for each show in the three-part series can be purchased from the MAD gift shop: ( The catalogues include essays written by experts on Native American art and history, full-colour reproductions of the exhibited works, artist statements, and brief biographies.
2. For Studio International’s coverage of Changing Hands: Art Without Reservation 2,” see
3. A specialist in historical and contemporary Native American art, Taubman has served on the juries for the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA) annual Indian Market in Sante Fe, New Mexico, and the Eiteljorg Contemporary Art Fellowship awarded by the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis, Indiana. As guest curator of the Changing Hands project, she has worked with MAD’s Chief Curator David Revere McFadden to produce three travelling exhibitions and accompanying catalogues.
4. Organised by the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis, Indiana, We Are Here! presents 45 examples of works by the 2011 Eiteljorg Contemporary Art Fellowship recipients (2 June–23 September 2012, National Museum of the American Indian, New York City).
5. Organised by the Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Close Encounters was displayed in five venues in Winnipeg, 22 January–May 2011.

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