For decades, the artistic endeavors of Native Americans and other indigenous groups were rarely acknowledged as fine art. Native art was displayed separately and in isolation from Western or American art, often curated as anthropological artifact and not as contemporary, living expression. In recent years, well-meaning exhibitions at such prestigious venues as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago have reckoned with that historical track record. Still, the shows couldn’t escape criticism; the exhibitions lacked the critical involvement of indigenous scholars, curators and advisors.
Last week, the Smithsonian American Art Museum announced that its upcoming 10th installment of the Renwick Gallery Invitational, which opens in May 2023, will focus entirely on six indigenous artists and will be curated by Lara M. Evans (Cherokee Nation), director of the Research Center for Contemporary Native Arts at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. The exhibition strategically places “Native artists as part of the fabric of American art,” says Evans, who also served on the exhibition’s panel of jurors—all of whom are deeply familiar with contemporary Native American and Alaska Native crafts people.
The 2023 Renwick Invitational, a biennial showcase for emerging artists which first appeared in 2000, will feature the works of artists from tribal nations across Alaska, Washington, Minnesota and Maine. Organized around the dual themes of “honors and burdens,” Evans says, the works will also speak to the “sense of responsibility that goes along with those honors and burdens.” Among the show's jurors is the Smithsonian's Anya Montiel (Mexican/Tohono O'odham descent), a curator at the National Museum of the American Indian. "As someone who has worked in Native art for nearly 25 years, I am very excited about the 2023 Renwick Invitational," she says. There have been other Native art exhibitions at the Renwick, Montiel points out, including the 1972 "Pueblo Pottery: Zuni and Acoma Designs from the Smithsonian Collections." The new show, she says, "is an opportunity for visitors and fans of American craft to see how Indigenous worldviews, homelands and the present moment inform what Native artists are making today."
The artists selected to carry out the show’s vision are Joe Feddersen (Arrow Lakes/Okanagan); sisters Lily Hope (Tlingit) and Ursala Hudson (Tlingit), who will work together as a duo; Erica Lord (Athabaskan/Iñupiat); Geo Neptune (Passamaquoddy); and Maggie Thompson (Fond du Lac Ojibwe).
“I'm blown away,” says Hope, who adds that she was pleased to be “present enough in the art world to be accepted and included in this show.” Hope, of Juneau, Alaska, has been practicing Chilkat and Ravenstail weaving since she was a teenager, having learned from her mother, Clarissa Rizal (Tlingit). “If I wanted to spend time with her, I would have to do what she was doing,” says Hope, noting that the Chilkat weaving style, practiced by the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian and other Northwest coast nations is highly labor-intensive.
One Chilkat blanket—with yarn made from mountain goat wool and cedar bark—may take up to 2,000 hours, or one-to-four years to make, Hope says. Only a dozen or so weavers devote the time and effort to make the ceremonial robes these days, but it has become a passion for Hope, who gave up a school-teaching career and now teaches weaving instead. After her mother’s death from cancer in 2016, pursuing weaving “was a revelation and an awakening and accepting of this as the work I'm supposed to do,” says Hope, noting that it’s also about “making sure that more than a couple people step into my shoes as I pass into the spirit realm.”
She will be contributing several blankets, including one in progress called “Between Worlds” in honor of Rizal. Hope is also excited about making and presenting a fire dish, designed to hold and transport a loved one’s favorite foods to the spirit realm, that is woven, not carved from wood. Typically, these fire dishes are burned in the deceased person’s honor.
Hope will also create a few works with her sister Hudson, a weaver, photographer, painter and printmaker, who is the recipient of a 2021 LIFT grant from Vancouver’s Native Arts and Cultures Foundation. The Foundation also awarded Hope the 2021 SHIFT grant, which supports projects responding to social, environmental or economic justice issues through a Native lens.
She helped the state of Alaska with its #WhyAKMasksUp project designed to encourage indigenous people to wear masks during the Covid-19 pandemic. Hope also crafted Chilkat Protector face masks, and armbands that honored Black Lives Matter. Some of the Protector masks will be presented in the Renwick show.
Together, Hope and Hudson aim to use their collaborative pieces to bring what has traditionally been work woven by women for men into a more feminine space, Hope says. And, they seek recognition for the notion that Chilkat weaving is a living, evolving art form, she says.
The other artists will also show contemporary works grounded in tradition.
Feddersen, a printmaker, glass artist and basket weaver, creates abstract patterns from ordinary life, depicting them in his works the way patterns are typically employed in the arts of the Plateau Region between the Rocky Mountains and the Cascades, says Evans. “He's taking the knowledge of traditions and transforming it into new materials and new contexts,” for instance using yarn instead of native grasses or glass to make his baskets, she says. His works tend to reflect on the human relationship with the environment.
For the Renwick show, multimedia artist Lord will highlight the theme of burden, in part, by making graphical representations of the genetic material of particular diseases that disproportionately impact Native communities. The works will look like “burden straps,” universally used in Native cultures to help carry heavy loads. At the Renwick, they will carry multiple meanings, including the disease burden that falls on at-risk populations, says Evans.
Neptune, a master basket maker, activist, educator and two-spirit, will emphasize the burden of keeping a tradition alive even as traditional materials are disappearing. The non-binary artist—who won a $50,000 Berresford fellowship in February 2021—uses the wood from black ash trees to weave brightly-colored and whimsical baskets. But the emerald ash borer, an invasive species from Asia, has been decimating black ash groves across the Great Lakes and the northeast. Neptune, who learned basket-making from their grandmother Molly Neptune Parker (a National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellow award-winner), has been weaving since they were four years old. Now, they are teaching the techniques to a new generation and also trying to preserve the trees, says Evans. “That's kind of the burden and the honor both,” she says.
Grief will be a recurrent theme in the show as it often goes hand-in-hand with honor. The Covid-19 pandemic will be directly referenced by some of the artists and peripherally by others.
Evans says the Minnesota textile artist Maggie Thompson was “driven” to honor her father, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2014. In her installation, the utilitarian and ugly will be rendered beautiful, with traditional star quilts adorning a series of body bags. “So many of us have been experiencing grief in relationship to the pandemic and to have something that's so plain and functional and gruesome transformed into something beautiful, and in honoring a person, is really touching,” Evans says.
Evans hopes visitors will experience a more nuanced understanding of the complex themes of honors and burdens, and “are able to make connections with patterns they see in their own life.” Just as importantly, she wants them to “come away with the appreciation for work that happens now by Native artists.”
Hope also wants to drive home a message. “This is a launching point for not only craft work being noticed as fine art, but indigenous craft work being elevated to fine art,” she says. “Because it is.”