Featuring more than 115 works, which range from contemporary photography to ancient ceramics, Hearts of Our People is billed as the first major exhibition to acknowledge artwork by Native women.
Growing up, master quilter Carla Hemlock was always surrounded by art, even if she didn’t quite recognize it at the time. Her great-aunts were active in the beadwork trade, and in Kahnawake Mohawk Nation Territory, just outside of Montreal, she was raised among women whose hands were never idle and whose diverse skills included sewing, knitting, crocheting, beadwork, and quilting. Still, they — and Hemlock, who herself practiced these hand techniques — never referred to themselves as “Artists” with a capital A. Art was simply something they did, not an identity they claimed.
That’s likely to change with the debut of the new touring exhibition Hearts of Our People, which kicked off at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (the Mia) in June. Featuring more than 115 works, which range from contemporary photography to ancient ceramics, it’s billed as the first major exhibition to acknowledge artwork by Native women. “And it’s about time,” says Hemlock, herself a featured artist in the show.
Beacon Lights Basket by Louisa Keyser/Dat So La Lee (Washoe), 1904 – 1905. Louisa Keyser ("Dat so la lee"); Willow, dyed bracken fern root, western red bud; 11¼ inches x 16 inches.
Prior to the 20th century, Native American art went largely unrecognized as fine art by critics and scholars. When scholars and the Western art establishment did begin giving Native art its due, they mainly celebrated works by men, like figurative wood carving and hide paintings. They overlooked the painstakingly crafted pots, textiles, and garments produced by female tribal members largely “on the assumption that men’s work is art, women’s work is craft,” says Jill Ahlberg Yohe, the Mia’s associate curator of Native American Art, who co-curated Hearts of Our People with Kiowa beadwork artist Teri Greeves. “Women do design work. Women do utility and function.” Ironically, though, “the majority of Native art has always been made by women,” Ahlberg Yohe adds. “Women are the creators, the culture-bearers.”
Other factors prevented women from taking their rightful place in the art canon. For example, they didn’t have key interactions with European collectors the way tribal men did, and academics often lumped Native artworks into categories — “an Acoma pot” or “an Apache dress” — that ignored the maker. Works by Native women in collections or museums are often labeled as “anonymous.”
Not at the Mia. In the exhibition, 70 percent of the objects are by known artists, a purposeful effort to celebrate the women behind the work. This isn’t the only way the show flips the script. Some of its living artists also belong to a special all-female planning committee that serves as the exhibition’s backbone. “A lot of Native American art exhibitions build their ideas from mostly male curators sitting in their offices,” Ahlberg Yohe says. Bucking this trend, she and Greeves relied on their advisory board’s 21 Native and non-Native artists, anthropologists, and art historians for guidance on the show’s artists, themes (legacy, relationships, and power), and representation.
Venere Alpina By Kay WalkingStick, 1997
The works themselves are a combination culled from the Mia’s permanent collection and loaned items from more than 30 institutions and private collections. They vary in age, medium, and origin, and cover a creative spectrum from contemporary photo-based work by the Métis artist Rosalie Favell to paintings by Cherokee painter Kay WalkingStick to baskets by famed Washoe weaver Dat So La Lee (Louisa Keyser). The Mia also commissioned two original pieces: a snowy landscape tapestry by master Navajo weaver D.Y. Begay and a contemporary version of a traditional Osage wedding coat by ceramicist and textile artist Anita Fields. “It’s truly a multimedia show in every sense of the word,” Ahlberg Yohe says.
For Hemlock, there’s a particularly evocative standout in the show: a clay Iroquoian pot from the 1400s, on loan from the McCord Museum in Montreal. “You will find many of our potters doing the exact same work as was done in the past,” she says. “The technique hasn’t changed. And to see that fragile pot survive hundreds of years — I compare it to our people, fragile yet strong, and how we’ve survived everything that’s been thrown at us. The pot is still intact, just like our people are still intact.”
Hearts of Our People will be on view through August 18 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art; it travels to the Frist Art Museum in Nashville in fall 2019, followed by the Renwick Gallery (Smithsonian American Art Museum) in Washington, D.C., and the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma. artsmia.org
Photography: Courtesy Minneapolis Institute Of Art, The David And Margaret Christenson Endowment For Art Acquisition, L2018.124a,B, © Kay WalkingStick; Courtesy Fenimore Art Museum, Gift Of Eugene Victor Thaw Art Foundation, Thaw Collection Of American Indian Art, T0751, Photo By Richard Walker
From the August/September 2019 issue