Officially, “Indian Territory” ceased to exist in 1907, when Oklahoma became a state, but conceptually it lingers in the hearts, memories and future of the myriad people and nations who claim it as their heritage.
That psychological landscape is referenced in “Art From Indian Territory,” a visually rich, conceptually provocative exhibition of paintings, prints, sculpture and other art by 11 contemporary American Indians from Oklahoma. With just 25 pieces, the show nicely fills All My Relations Gallery in Minneapolis, but is a frustratingly small nod to material that merits much more elaboration. It’s on view through Oct. 12.
All of what is now North and South America, of course, was once “Indian Territory,” a landscape inhabited by people whose civilizations long preceded the influx of Europeans. Over centuries of war, dubious treaties and forced removals, Indians were pushed off their ancestral lands and confined to ever-smaller parcels until a great many unrelated tribes were finally concentrated in and around what is now Oklahoma. Even now Oklahoma contains 39 federally recognized tribes and an infinite mix of native cultures, languages and traditions.
Personal and political
The personal and the political mingle in “Indian Territory” along with legends, bits of history, nods to Euro-American artistic traditions and iconography and occasional flashes of humor. All 11 participants are enrolled tribal members or have Indian heritage, and five of them teach at colleges in Oklahoma, Kansas or Arkansas. Their training and technical expertise are eloquently demonstrated throughout.
In his monoprint “Omen,” Norman Akers shows U.S. presidents as alien invaders in spaceships hovering above an old map of the Americas and its original inhabitants. His “Distant Calling” mixes Christian iconography with what appears to be an illustration of traditional Indian concepts of the cosmos. In her big circular painting “Everything Belongs,” Erin Shaw alludes to the complex spiritual life of her contemporaries with a swirl of images drawn from the natural world, tribal legends and ancient Christian iconography.
Several artists incorporate old photos as a way of honoring the past and sustaining memories. In his screen print “Aunt Kate,” Bobby C. Martin transforms a snapshot of an elderly woman with a pipe clamped in her teeth into a symbol of endurance, and honors “Uncle David (Killed in Action on Valentine’s Day, 1944)” with a full-scale portrait based on a photo of the young man proudly posing in his sailor’s uniform.
Painter Tony Tiger, who also organized the show, collages a father-son photo to a sculptural painting whose abstract swirls and traditional designs (diamonds, crosses, cones) serve as an animated frame for a fragile bit of history. Tiger and Martin collaborated on “Spring Reflection #1,” in which photographic images of Indians in traditional dress are overlaid with names, numbers and designs of ambiguous meaning.
Ceramist Troy Jackson addresses the perennial problems of mixed heritage in “I’m Part White, but I Can’t Prove It,” a handsome sculpture of a blindfolded, kneeling figure holding two small balls — one red, one white. And Shan Goshorn suggests the potential loss of heritage and identity in “Diluted,” a seven-panel list of names and tribal origins. The first panel is stained deep red and the tribes are singular. By the seventh panel, which fades to white, individuals’ origins (Chippewa, Cheyenne, Arapahoe) are as complicated and as culturally “diluted” as those of fourth- or fifth-generation Euro-Americans today.
Additional pieces include woodblock images by Marwin Begaye, abstract paintings by Michael Elizondo Jr., a ceramic sculpture by Anita Fields, stylized calligraphic ink drawings by Benjamin Harjo Jr. and an elaborate interpretation — in felt, paint and beadwork — of an ancient water-legend by Molly Murphy Adams.
At a time when American citizens, politicians and the courts are grappling again with divisive issues of immigration and race, there’s a special resonance to an exhibition about heritage and identity done by descendants of the country’s original inhabitants.