February 03, 2012

Two New England art shows

Two museums show Native American art, then and now

Two of the most thrilling shows you are likely to see this year--both devoted to Native American art--are showing in New England

By Sebastian Smee
The Hood show is drawn entirely from its permanent collection. Remarkably, most of the objects are on public view for the first time. Although the show is divided up according to art-producing regions (Arctic, Northwest Coast, Plains, Woodlands, and so on), it mixes modern and contemporary work with older objects.

So, for instance, you might see a girl’s traditional fringed dress made from tanned hide, glass beads, bones, string, sinew, and thread within view of a contemporary digital photograph by Rebecca Belmore, which shows the bare back of a reclining woman (Belmore is one of several artists who appear in both shows). That back is traversed, troublingly, by a long scar from which a fringe of red strings descend, like rivulets of blood. The connections between the two pieces, and many more nearby, do not need spelling out.

This is effective, but I think it would be even more effective if the strands were drops of blood rather than blood-colored strings.Much of the work in both shows addresses all the ironies--by turns toe-curling, humorous, and flat-out depressing--inherent in this situation. There is, for instance, Kent Monkman’s installation, “Théâtre de Cristal” (the first work you see in “Shapeshifting”), which, beneath a giant chandelier echoing the shape of a tepee, projects onto a buffalo hide rug two short, satirical films. One of them, “Group of Seven Inches,” shows a transgender Native American called Miss Chief luring two white males back to her cabin, getting them drunk, and employing them as figure models.

Conceptually, the work--an inversion of things that happened (more or less) to Native Americans who were treated as “specimens” by both scientists and artists--may be a bit elaborate. But as theater, it’s effective, and it gets the show off to a spectacular start.

Even better, further in, is a two-part video piece by Nicholas Galanin. The first part shows Galanin break dancing to a traditional tribal song. The second shows a Tlingit dancer in traditional garb moving to the sounds of electro-bass rap.

The work, a condensed and haunting expression of cultural schizophrenia, is superbly eloquent, even without its achingly beautiful title: “Tsu Heidei Shugaxtutaan (We Will Again Open This Container of Wisdom That Has Been Left in Our Care), Parts I and II.”

Love the idea of the two performers dancing to each other's music. Sounds awesome!

For more on modern Native art, see Remix Riddled with Clichés?

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