Call to mind an American Indian lawyer.

Whatever image that elicits, it’s unlikely to equal “Ten Indigenous Lawyers,” Nadya Kwandibens’ 2012 black-and-white photo of 10 classy women in an urban alley. Fashionably dressed in leather and denim, stylish silk or a flash of Northwest Coast tribal wear, they are beauties all: women who radiate intelligence, compassion, modernity and the ability to solve any problem.

And why not? The notion of an “American Indian lawyer” should inspire such confidence. But given the subliminal stereotypes that linger about race, profession and ethnicity, the mental picture may not have matched the reality that Kwandibens presents.

Kwandibens’ photo is a riveting highlight of “The World Through Our Eyes,” a small show of about two dozen paintings, photos, sculpture and clothing by eight contemporary Indian artists at All My Relations Gallery in south Minneapolis through Aug. 22.

A few blocks away, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts has a complementary show, “Arriving at Fresh Water,” that features 16 paintings, photos and sculptures by 14 Indian artists from the Great Lakes area through Feb. 21.

Contextualizing it all, Kwandibens, an Anishinaabe from Ontario, offers a useful perspective on contemporary Indian life and art.

“We as indigenous people are often portrayed in history books as nations once great, in museums as nations frozen … and in the media as nations forever troubled,” she writes in a gallery statement. Her goal is a positive presentation of her people in “great, thriving, balanced civilizations.”

These displays — both mere samplers — are too small and diffuse to accomplish such a grand ambition. But perhaps they will rightly serve as the foundation and inspiration for more comprehensive future surveys.

‘In two different worlds’

Curated by Orlando Avery, a South Dakota native and member of the Cheyenne River Lakota Nation, “The World Through Our Eyes” features work by “two-spirit” artists, that is, individuals who identify with both male and female gender roles.

“They walk in two different worlds, masculine and feminine together,” said gallery director Graci Horne. “We Lakota Dakota call two-spirit people wincta, and traditionally they are the best beaders, singers and artists. They are sacred people gifted with the creative spirit.”

At All My Relations Gallery, their creativity finds expression in bold paintings by Asa Wright, who renders portraits in calligraphic designs over bright fields of yellow or purple; lavish party dresses by Jolonzo Guy-Goldtooth, including a silk-gauze gown garnished with twigs, mirrors and pheasant feathers; sensitive portrait photos by Whitney Minthorn; beadwork-embellished military shirts by Edison Ritchie; a noise-loom by Navajo (Diné) artist Ryan Dennison; sculpture by Sharon Day, including a turquoise-festooned buffalo skull, and paintings and a “Fools Bow” by George Bettelyoun.

Put in historical context

Even though most of the artists in “Arriving at Fresh Water: Contemporary Native Artists From Our Great Lakes” are living in Minnesota or Wisconsin now, there is a curiously historical flavor to the exhibit.

It includes paintings by the late Norval Morrisseau, a Canadian Ojibway, and George Morrison, a Grand Portage Ojibwe, that nicely amplify the museum’s extensive collection of more traditional Indian art in adjacent galleries. Morrisseau renders in cheerful, posterish colors a tree of life alive with big-eyed birds, animals and fish.

Morrison’s 1981 “Lake Superior Landscape,” which the museum recently acquired, is a typical puzzle-like vista in which sky, water and shoreline are mapped out in broken patches of dappled color. Although the Minnesota artist was known for modernist abstractions, they were always rooted in his reverence for the endless horizon visible from his studio overlooking Lake Superior.

The often troubled historical relationship between native and Euro-American culture simmers in much of the art, including Jim Denomie’s colorful 2014 painting “Untruthful,” which depicts Tonto accusing the Lone Ranger of lying to him and the masked man sneering “Get used to it” in reply.

Nearby, Maggie Thompson weaves an abstract “Family Portrait” that cleverly represents the “blood quantum” of her family members according to how much “red Indian” blood each has: her father six-eighths red; her Irish-German mother all pale ivory; Thompson herself three-eighths red.

Other pieces include abstract paintings by writer Louise Erdrich and artist Dyani White Hawk; historical tableaus by Julie Buffalohead and Andrea Carlson; pop art scenes by Star Wallowing Bull and his father, Frank Big Bear; a winsome drawing of an Indian kid in cargo pants by Jodi Webster, and sculpture by Truman Lowe and Carole Lee Anderson.

Although many of these pieces recently have been seen in the Twin Cities at All My Relations or Bockley Gallery, their museum appearance here is likely to expose them to a wider audience in a valuable historic context.

In one of the show’s most moving installations, photographer Tom Jones overlays lines from the patriotic song “America” onto nine historic photos and documents of Indians whose contributions to U.S. history have been, he rightly asserts, too often omitted from standard texts.

Among those documents, Chief Seattle’s extraordinarily eloquent 1855 letter to President Franklin Pierce will break your heart, as it should.

“We love this earth as a newborn loves its mother’s heartbeat,” Chief Seattle wrote. “So if I sell you our land, love it as we have loved it. Care for it as we have cared for it. Hold in your mind the memory of the land as it is when you receive it. Preserve the land for all children and love it as God loves us. … No man, be he Red Man or White Man, can be apart. We are all brothers after all.”

 

mary.abbe@startribune.com 612-673-4431