Running Against the Heard

Contemporary Indian art is a bust at museum shows

It's tempting to say the Heard Museum's new $18.1 million expansion has transformed the institution. But you don't have to wander very far through its updated galleries and hallways to hear visitors saying the same old things about the art and artifacts they can't readily identify.

Down one corridor: "Is that really Indian?"
Down another: "That doesn't look Indian at all, does it, Sheryl?"
Either way, the comments broadcast the expectations people have for the Heard and its more than 32,000 objects. The crowds go there to see Indian. And they think they have a pretty good idea what Indianness, for lack of a better word, looks like. The preferred forms are kachinas, pottery, textiles, beadwork, basketry and other ritual gear. The older the better.

The popular assumption is that native art was best before westward ho diluted its purity and killed the rituals behind it. That was long before Indian art became a billion-dollar-a-year market and native lands became the backdrops for automobile ads.

Given the setting, it's no surprise that the museum's displays of nontraditional contemporary art are treated as little more than visual speed bumps by visitors rushing from the galleries of old artifacts to the museum store, where purchases always make it possible to connect past and present. It doesn't matter how often Heard officials stress the museum's role in featuring art from living Native American cultures.

The majority of the museum's annual 250,000 visitors come to see the dead. For them, the museum is a cultural burial ground, a mausoleum where the things that mean the most glow the brightest under or behind glass.

They are not as interested in seeing the contemporary Indian art, which more resembles works by mainstream American artists. Newer Indian artists, who have studied at some of the more prominent art schools in the country, dwell in sculpture, painting, mixed media and printmaking.

That's one reason shows of contemporary art, like the current "Art in 2 Worlds: The Native American Fine Art Invitational, 1983-1997," have such a difficult time at the Heard. As welcomed as this exhibition--which ran biennially until 1994 and became a triennial in 1997--might be to Native American artists who feel they have few other outlets, it's a bust to the rest of the crowds.

"It isn't really popular with our audience," says Margaret Archuleta, the museum's curator of fine arts. "I'd say it's difficult for them to understand."

Archuleta says that even among the museum staff, "every time the show rolls around, we have the discussion about whether we want to drop it. And people are always asking why should we spend money on a catalogue when we can't sell it."

One reason to persist, she says, is "to give Indian artists a place to show off their innovations of Indian traditions, and to get beyond the usual Native American categories of pottery, jewelry, blankets and basketry."

Few, if any, of the annual Indian fairs and markets welcome that sort of nontraditional Indian art the show has advanced over the years. Most tend to promote the old ideal of hand-crafted culture and things that look authentically Native American.

What that means isn't always obvious. But it's clear that Indian artists carry the burden of having to prove the ethnicity of their work--both on the reservation and off--in ways required of no other American artists. Since 1935, a congressionally mandated Arts and Crafts Board has served as a kind of truth in advertising body to define and protect the authenticity of Indian art and its market.

Yet the cultural friction isn't confined to the rub of white world and red. For many of the more than 50 artists on view, there's an equal chafing between old world and new.

This 15th-anniversary show was drawn from the previous seven Heard invitationals. Like its predecessors, this one features Indian artists from the United States and Canada. It contains few works that fit the long-standing stereotypes of Indian art. Most of the works take the form of painting, sculpture, mixed media and printmaking, which until fairly recently haven't been considered a significant part of Native American cultural traditions. And they're displayed without the ethnographic labels found in other areas of the museum, or other museums dedicated to Indian art and artifacts. The artists are listed by tribal affiliation. But other than that, no pains are taken to connect their works with those of their ancestors or specific traditions.

Which is just as well. Most of "Art in 2 Worlds" has more in common with mainstream American art than with any of the art you find behind glass cases at the Heard. So much so that you have to wonder about the advantage of segregating it in shows like this.

Many of the artists haven't stayed on the Rez. They've studied at mainstream art programs, such as Arizona State University's, the Kansas City Art Institute, the Rhode Island School of Design and other colleges and universities. Most draw their styles and sources from the diversity of mainstream art, often blending contemporary trends with fairly traditional visual symbolism, patterns and narratives. Fermin Salas' "Madonna on the Beach," R.E. Bartow's "Crow Bride" and Emmie Whitehorse's "Another Blanket #411" all borrow from the expressionistic, lyrical manner of modern abstract painting. So does the work of Norman Akers and many others.

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