Trying to reflect seven centuries of art by American Indian women is no easy task. The Minneapolis Institute of Art’s ambitious new exhibition “Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists” — the first such show at a major museum — includes 117 objects from more than 50 tribes across North America.
In an unusual step, the museum formed a Native Advisory Board with 21 scholars and artists who collaborated with Jill Ahlberg Yohe, Mia’s associate curator of Native American art, and Teri Greeves, an independent curator and member of the Kiowa nation, to shape the show.
Here is a look at five of the artists they selected for the exhibit, which opens Sunday.
Background: Raised in Nome, Alaska, and based in Anchorage, she’s of Iñupiat, Athabascan, Irish and German descent.
Her work in the show: Several dozen pairs of pouch-like shapes, made of hand-stitched gut or rawhide and held together by thick strings, dangle above a rectangular platform. They’re part of a series named “Idiot Strings,” for the tethers that fasten children’s mittens together. The work points to an ongoing suicide epidemic among Alaskan Natives. “I am mostly trying to create awareness but also understanding, and maybe begin to heal from some of these historical traumas around indigenous people,” she said by phone. The artist is known for using materials that reflect her cultural background, including processed walrus stomach and intestines, reindeer rawhide and porcupine quills.
Background: A member of the Leech Lake Band of the Ojibwe nation, she lives in Onigum, Minn.
Her work: Of all the accessories she’s adorned with her traditional woodland-style beadwork, bags are White’s favorite. Both creative and utilitarian, her work is a reminder of Anishinaabe/Ojibwe history and a connection to her ancestors. Two bags are in this exhibit. One, made for her son, is adorned with a thunderbird, a symbol of great power and grandfathers. She began beading at age 6, learning from her grandmother. “We lived in a two-room shack and it didn’t have any running water or electricity,” she said. “My grandparents and I spent a lot of quiet time together, and we would do a lot of beadwork and look at the Bay of Onigum, or Leech Lake.”
Background: She’s a member of the Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico.
Her work: Simpson picked up a 1985 Chevy El Camino she spotted on a roadside in New Mexico, expecting to gut it for a transmission. She wound up customizing “Maria” with black-on-black patterning in the style of famed Tewa potter Maria Martinez. The car has become part homage to Martinez and part performance artwork. Something of a mixed-media artist, Simpson comes from a long line of ceramicists, yet also works in the custom-car world. “Growing up in Española, N.M. — lowrider capital of the world — and seeing how beautiful people make cars and how proud they become when they drive it, it becomes a spiritual cultural dedication which is very similar to indigenous aesthetics being utilitarian and spiritual-based,” she said.
Background: Daughter of the Yankton Dakota chief Two Bear, she was born in 1854 and raised on the Standing Rock Reservation.
Her work: Her 1903 “Valise” transforms a small suitcase with intricate, dynamic beadwork. One side shows cowboys or Native people roping cattle. The other depicts horses, a tepee, blankets, and a number of figures that could be a wedding or a young woman’s coming-of-age celebration. Women were normally relegated to abstraction, but Nellie was given permission to do figurative beadwork by her father, who fought in the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn, and also beaded. Forced to go to an American Indian boarding school, she never uttered a word of English or French again after her return to Standing Rock.
Background: Great-granddaughter of 19th-century portraitist Thomas Sully, this largely self-taught Dakota artist (1896-1963) was from Standing Rock.
Her work: Virtually unknown until recent years, her colored-pencil triptychs offer a variety of symbology depicted in a subversive way that resisted erasure. “Christianity was imposed on Dakota and Lakota people,” said curator Yohe, “so a lot of traditional practices were banned, but if you could superimpose them on Christianity you could subvert that system and still maintain a lot of traditional practices.” Sully’s triptych “The Indian Church,” circa 1938-45, features figures huddled between tepees or inside a church, displayed above a kaleidoscopic series of patterns that resemble Art Nouveau and Bauhaus imagery, and a panel consisting of iconic abstraction found in Lakota and Dakota bead and quilt work. She also made hundreds of portraits of personalities such as Greta Garbo and Babe Ruth.