September 05, 2012

Traditional vs. contemporary Native art

A lengthy article discusses the conflict between traditional Native art (considered a lesser art form but popular with buyers) and contemporary Native art (critically favored but not what the public wants):

Native Talent

Santa Fe’s Native artists are breaking from tradition, but is their work truly contemporary?

Matthew Irwin
Among other young and innovative Native artists in Santa Fe, the 33-year-old is one of the more outspoken about the limitations of what Southwestern Association for Indian Arts’ outgoing executive director Bruce Bernstein refers to as the “Native box,” or the tendency to group all Native artists together under a set of formal and cultural obligations­—from the materials and methods used to make art to the corresponding themes and narratives.

Though Cannupahanska strongly identifies with his Native heritage, he also believes it doesn’t tell the whole story. And, as he describes the limitations set for Native art, it becomes apparent he’s also talking about the space Natives themselves hold.

“The whole notion of Native art was not developed to create a dialogue of existence within this world, but to talk about existence that was before,” Cannupahanska says.

He wants to change the dialogue to one about where Natives are now—as individuals, as a people, as a nation, as Americans.

“We are dealing with the same trials and tribulations as your average Americans,” he says. “Our reservations are rough. They’re like third-world rough—a ghetto would be nice. But we’re still alive, we’re still thriving.”

The discussion on what constitutes Native art, and what constitutes contemporary Native art, seems to be getting its steam from Cannupahanska’s peers and mentors, but curators, academics and staff at SWAIA are also talking about a palpable rise in contemporary Native art interested in critical dialogue more than commercialism. That they’re talking at all is evidence that a larger dialogue is taking place, though a divide still separates Native artists, with few exceptions, from the international art world.

Some blame the enduring influence of tradition—one that has made artists and critics sheepish, for fear of offending—while others say that any artist, Native or not, simply has to produce work worthy of a world stage and its prejudices. Still others say that “contemporary” is merely a matter of perspective, and that a space on the wall in an international museum or gallery may not be the goal. The irony is that while Santa Fe remains fixated on Abstract Expressionism and Southwestern landscapes and, as a result, has suffered a drought of fresh ideas and talent—evidenced, perhaps, by the number of contemporary galleries that have closed in the last year—its Native talent has begun a vigorous debate on contemporary art.

The question about where the boundary lies between commercial art and critical contemporary art is universal. But for Natives like Cannupahanska and Frank Buffalo Hyde, the stakes are nothing less than their entire cultures. Events like SWAIA’s Santa Fe Indian Market provide a living for many Native communities by creating a space for artists to sell their work, they say, but allotting that space isn’t any different from allotting a reservation. Native Americans—and Native artists, as a form of spokespeople—want to be part of the American narrative.

“In the end, [Native art] is marginalized,” Cannupahanska says. “It’s set aside for…which is totally different from [the] international art world, where you are judged by your work…and, how well you schmooze it up. But you’re not being marginalized.”
Comment:  I'm not sure the article provides any answers. Native artists still have to struggle with these perennial questions. If it's "Native" art, can it be contemporary? If it's contemporary art, can it still be Native? Others may disagree, but I'd say yes and yes.

For more on the subject, see N.D.N.: Native Diaspora Now and Contemporary Expression in Beat Nation.

Below:  "Cannupahanska is among a generation of Native American artists exploring the definition of contemporary Native art and the extent to which identity and heritage figure into it."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Most people's image of "traditional ndn art" is Studio Style: Two-dimensional drawings with heavy outlines, ghostly to the point of being uncanny. By the 1950s, the fact that white critics saw anything else Indians did as bad led to it being labeled, well, I believe Susan Sontag would say "fascist". For much of the 50s through the 80s and even 90s, you had an anti-art movement in that variety.