By Lee Rosenbaum
On one side, Donald "Babe" Hemlock's "Ironworker Cradleboard" (2011) looks like the cozy abode devised by American Indians to swaddle an infant in fur-lined animal hide adorned with gut fringes. But the image on the front limns the Indians' more precarious 21st-century existence: Painted on the cradle's wood support is a Mohawk ironworker, balancing on one foot atop a construction girder that is vertiginously suspended over Times Square. While his right hand grips the girder, he daringly extends his left arm, as if poised to take a bow in his own bravura Broadway performance, more risky than any stunt in the "Spider-Man" musical advertised on a billboard below.
Expressly created for the Museum of Arts and Design's jarringly contemporary Indian exhibition, "Changing Hands: Art Without Reservation, 3," Mr. Hemlock's "Cradleboard" embodies the duality of contemporary Indian artists straddling two worlds—the rich history and cultural traditions of their ancestors and the edgy imperatives of contemporary life and modern artistic practice. According to Mr. Hemlock, himself a former ironworker, his two-sided piece "demonstrates the way we maintain balance in our world, while walking in yours, which hasn't always been easy."
This reconciliation of polarities informs most of the 164 objects in this eclectic 84-artist exhibition. Almost everything in "Changing Hands" was created within the past five years; about 25 works were produced for this show, which focuses on Indian art from the southeastern and northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada.
Since Hemlock included an image of Spidey--for the Spider-Man play on Broadway--he may be familiar with Marvel's other characters. He could be going for a theme of the Mohawk ironworker as a noble, self-sacrificing hero for his people--like the Surfer. The cradleboard would suggest the ironworker is doing it for the children.
For more on Indians and comic-book art, see Veregge's Superhero "Totems" and Indigenous Narratives Collective.
Below: Ironworker Cradleboard (2011) by Donald 'Babe' Hemlock. (National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution/Greg Horn)