My graduate work at the University of Colorado at Boulder focused on the contemporary art of the Native community. I was fascinated by the way Native Americans used artwork to express identity, religious beliefs, and their conflict with modern America and its political landscape.
For my master’s project, I curated the California Academy of Science’s first online exhibit, Gifts Given by the Creator. I’d like to note how fortunate I was to work under the direction of the brilliant and talented June Anderson, then Director of Ethnic Art in the Anthropology Department.
After visiting with several Native artists in northern California, I curated an online exhibit covering several topics, including tradition, the reclamation of culture, relationship to the environment, and more.
Unfortunately, technology changes too quickly, the exhibit became extremely outdated, and it was pulled from the website.
So, I thought I’d share some works from the exhibit and their accompanying label text if only to preserve this incredible time in my life when I was either visiting with Native artists or locking myself in a Berkeley attic apartment to write, write, and write some more.
In the 20th century, the world of American Indians was in a state of flux. World War II exposed Indian soldiers to non-Indian cultures, and postwar relocation policies created a huge urban Indian population.
The coming of television to reservations brought about other changes, as it introduced new ideas into the American Indian community. The Indian world became one of dislocated tribes and villages impacted by colonization. However, the strength of tradition prevailed, as captured by the artists in American Indian communities.
Built upon an ever-present harmony with nature and dreams, American Indian art continued to evolve out of a unity of transition and innovation.
Many American Indians believe artists receive their talent from their ancestors and from their culture.
As skills are passed down through generations, new materials become available and new techniques develop. By the turn of the 20th century, the American Indian community had established a reputation for high-quality traditional crafts.
However, for the artists in this exhibition, who express contemporary themes, their connection to tradition may be less obvious.
Yet, by telling visual stories, producing “ledger art,” and embracing the teachings of their elders, these contemporary artists have maintained a link to Indian culture which is also evident in the energy and mythology expressed in their work.
Despite past government efforts to destroy their culture, American Indian artists have been tenacious in holding on to their “gifts from the ancestors.
Tenacity has proved an invaluable trait, for overnight success and recognition have eluded many artists. They have known years of hard work and repeated disappointments.
Although many artists depict sacred ceremonies in their work, they are often hesitant to speak about them.
Some have been taught not to visually represent on canvas certain ceremonies, legends, or objects that are spiritual in nature. Those who do often say a prayer or blessing before they begin work.