Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Contemporary Native American Art Informed by Tradition

So what exactly is traditional art? What is contemporary? Can artwork be both?

Artists are skilled in cultural appropriation. They pick and choose pieces of their past, stories, cultural references, ideas of what is pleasing or unpleasing to look at, and messages they want to convey. Through their own process or a process handed down over time they mix these elements into communication, sound, movement, fibers, ink, charcoal, video, and expression.

Brenda Garand
Installation view of work by Native Artist
Brenda Garand at AVA gallery in Lebanon, NH
But how artists describe themselves can box them into where their work will get shown, what kinds of audiences will view it, or whether it is even good or not. Are you a traditional artist? Contemporary? Hobbyist? Craftsperson?

"It's one of the questions that continues to puzzle the art world as Native-American artists address the value of their indigenous history and seek to define their place as contemporary artists... For example non-Native audiences can struggle to understand work that incorporates tribal stories and symbols, which has led to a ghettoization of Native artwork to venues dedicated solely to indigenous art. On the other hand, the work may confuse or disappoint audiences who wrongly consider Native Americans as "people of the past," especially work that may look insufficiently traditional when familiar art forms such as pottery, rugs, or beading are used in dramatically different and potentially discomforting ways. This discomfort has led to perceptions that Native-American artwork is political or too steeped in identity," writes Victoria Hutter in her recent article, Outside the Box published in NEA Arts Magazine. 

If your indigenous ancestry is from this region, you might be Abenaki, Pennacook, or Mi'kmaq. Or at some point, as in most families, someone relocated and you now call New Hampshire home. You might be Dine, Cherokee, or any other of the hundreds of tribal groups across the nation. Because many Abenaki were forced to leave NH in the 17th and 18th centuries, it can be easy to assume that there are no Native Americans that live here. Add to that New Hampshire is one of the only states in the nation that has no federally recognized Native American tribes.

Untitled, steel and leather, by NH artist
Margaret Jacobs, photo courtesy of the artist.
Rest assured there are many Native Americans who make New Hampshire home, and many who are practicing traditional storytelling, beading, basketmaking, drumming and other artforms. There are also many, like Margaret Jacobs of Enfield, NH who pull on her Native ancestry to inform her contemporary metal sculptures, "I am exploring how traditional culture and knowledge can thrive in a contemporary world."

Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum in Warner has an extensive traditional native collection, but also has a gallery dedicated to revolving exhibits of contemporary work. AVA gallery in Lebanon, NH highlights artists' heritage in the labels marking the artwork, but does not separate or differentiate Native Artists contemporary work from other work in the gallery.

Chickasaw and Choctaw artist Heather Ahtone remarked in the NEA article, "If you are making contemporary art that retains the traditional coded visual language of your tribe, isn't that both still traditional and contemporary?"

Contemporary Gallery at Mt Kearsarge Indian Museum,
Warner, NH
Cannupa Hanska Luger’s Reliquary, 2016,
photo courtesy of the artist;