When the National Museum of the American Indian opened it's doors on the National Mall in 2004, the museum had already begun to amass a rich collection of contemporary art by Native Americans. Perhaps nobody knows this better than Truman Lowe (Ho-Chunk), who served as the museum's curator of contemporary art until 2008.
But Lowe wasn't just a witness to the museum's acquisitions during the past several years. NMAI's newest exhibit, "Vantage Point"—a survey of 25 contemporary artists, comprised of those recently acquired works—features an installation by the former curator. The exhibit is organized according to four overlapping themes: personal identity, cultural memory, history/contemporary urban experience and landscape/place. Lowe's work, "Wah-Du-Sheh," is made of "bundles" of willow branches, paper and leather ties and explores several of the exhibit's themes. I spoke with him from the road about this work and the exhibit as a whole.
Tell me about "Wah-Du-Sheh," the installation you contributed to "Vantage Point."
The piece is very influenced by a visit I paid to a particular site where the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers meet. I think it’s an offshoot of the Cahokia Mounds. The site is a four-sided, pyramid-shaped mound, located right at the confluence of these two rivers. As we were walking around that space, it became clear to me that it was a unique site. There was a huge shelf, or a roof-like structure that looked like it was part of the site, so I inquired about it, and they said that archaeologists had been working there.
I was able to get entree into that space, and the most stunning image was a series of sand pedestals, of funerary size, enough to hold a body. On top of those sand pedestals were the remains of several different individuals that had been buried at that site. It was really a stark image. It was so strong that I really had to do something about it. So that’s really what the piece is about. The title of the piece in the exhibit is called “Wa-Du-Sheh,” which means “bundle,” and often times important objects or important clothing is wrapped in a bundle and kept close, and it’s a special treatment for special objects. Sometimes history has indicated that these bundles also kept particular kinds of medicine as well. That’s really what the piece is about, and I did it so that it would be without a base, giving the notion of the spirit as it transcends.
Do you have personal experience with bundles?
Yes. In particular, my mother was a great bundler of all kinds of her favorite things around the house. She didn’t really use suitcases or bags or anything like that. As plastic bags became available, that’s what she used, but everything was kept and wrapped in that kind of manner.
How was this piece a departure from your previous art, or else how is it in keeping with themes that you like to explore in your work?
It’s a continuation, but it is a bit of an offshoot to deal with anything resembling spirituality. I really don’t go into that, mainly because it’s not my particular expertise or area of tradition. I just wanted to give the illusion of the notion of how we as human beings really do function within our particular traditions and within our particular history. We’re involved in creating our own histories.
The piece is also really a meditative piece as well, so it’s intended to give a sense of thinking about who we are, where we are, and where we’re headed.
As the former contemporary art curator at NMAI, what are your thoughts on the "Vantage Point" exhibit as a whole?
The exhibit indicates that the museum is collecting works from contemporary native artists that will be very strong and important parts of the history, a documentation of this particular time period. Many of them are ancient artists like myself, and then there are young people who are carrying on that tradition of extreme creativity.
It represents in a sense what Native Americans have contributed to the art world, both historic objects as well as contemporary, but it is a voice that often times is stronger when it’s visual, as opposed to even the other forms of expression. So it’s really an important component of the museum, and the opportunity for me to have been a part of it was really an important part of my life as well.
"Vantage Point" is open now through August 7, 2011, at NMAI.