Tiny beads the size of sand are arranged inside a gold-framed necklace amulet, forming a portrait of Pocahontas, the leader who symbolizes both the romanticization of Native American women and their erasure.
The delicate, wearable artwork by Keri Ataumbi (Kiowa/Comanche) and Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock) is one of 117 pieces on display in the revolutionary show “Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists” at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. The exhibit is the first ever at a major institution to focus solely on the contributions of Native women artists, with a key aim of making them, and their accomplishments, visible.
The groundbreaking show includes 115 artists from the U.S. and Canada spanning more than 50 tribes, 65 languages and seven centuries. Its curation was Native-led and completely collaborative. Mia’s associate curator of Native Art, Jill Ahlberg Yohe, and independent curator/Kiowa artist Teri Greeves worked closely with a 21-member Native Art Advisory Board to select pieces for display. The same team identified three themes explored in the show: legacy, power and relationships.
While the show is premised on the idea of bringing visibility to Native women’s artworks, the very idea of a Native women’s exhibition in an art museum, a symbol of colonialism, is in and of itself radical. Even the idea of being an “artist” is outside of Native cultures, in which women carry on traditions of making objects that are both aesthetic and utilitarian, and that hold a spiritual space allowing for an ongoing connection with ancestors.
Making what is now called “art” is “really our identities as Native people,” Greeves said in opening-day remarks. “We are very grateful that [our work] has arrived in a fine art museum to be recognized in this manner by your paradigm,” she said. “The exhibition in this sense recognizes how Native women are a part of the entirety of American art history.”
Pairing the past and present
One of the show’s strongest aspects is how it pairs contemporary artists alongside past makers. This brings out both the cultural importance of Native women being the ones who pass on the knowledge of making, and the ways that women’s ancestors are always present, whether they are living or deceased.
In acknowledgment of a painful history, medicine stations are set up throughout the exhibit to allow Native visitors to hold medicine or offer prayers with tobacco as a way to work through and continue healing from trauma.
Collaboration is another powerful component on display. “Give Away Horses” (2006), by the mother-daughter-granddaughter cohort known as Growing Thunder, is more than an intricately beaded full-length Dakota/Nakoda woman’s outfit — it is also a fully-alive creation to be worn and used, not to be stored away as a historical artifact.
The photograph “Kaa” is a collaboration between photographer Cara Romero and her model, Kaa Folwell, a clay artist. From different tribes, they connected over their common ancestral Pueblo designs, which were then painted onto Kaa’s nude body — a series of thick zigzags in cream and brown that personify the spirit “Clay Lady,” the “Tewa mother of all things and to whom all things return,” according to the exhibition’s catalog. Positioned next to the collaborative photograph is an ancient pot by a Pueblo artist, unnamed, circa 1000-1300, linking the past, present and future.
While such large and arresting works and pairings shed light on the importance of lineage, at times it is easy to miss out on some of the smaller, subtler artworks in this exhibition.
I almost walked past “The Old Arrow Maker,” a 1872 sculpture by Edmonia Lewis showing the moment that Hiawatha approaches Minnehaha’s father to ask for her hand in marriage. (Lewis was an artist of mixed Mississauga and African-American heritage who sought refuge in Rome and thrived as a neoclassical sculptor.) It is unfortunately overshadowed by another powerful yet much bigger piece, Iñupiat/Athabaskan artist Sonya Kelliher-Combs’ “Idiot Strings, The Things We Carry,” an installation of several dozen pairs of pouch-like shapes made of hand-stitched gut or rawhide, hanging above a rectangular platform, the artist’s commentary on the ongoing suicide epidemic among Alaska Natives.
Despite the challenges of organizing so many objects, the team pulls off this exhibition beautifully. It is worth spending several hours with these works — not only to experience their delights large and small, but also to be immersed in a way of creating, making and being that is outside Western ideas of “art.” At Mia, Native women’s work that was once unsung has been brought to light.