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Creating a different perspective on history

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Through his art, Kent Monkman is challenging standard versions of the history of North America.

The style used by the Canadian painter of Cree ancestry resembles that of the Old Masters and 19th-century European settlers. Previously working in abstract expressionism, he says he came to see that modern genre as too much of a “personal language.” His narratives of colonialism, de-possession of land and colonized sexuality were not coming through to viewers.

That led him to look deeper into the centuries-old, representational style used by the settlers and non-indigenous artists who painted the Western landscape and its Native people. Those works and narratives, Monkman said, have been shown in museums as the “authoritative” version of history.

Now, he’s able to use that same style to present a different perspective.

“As I started work in that language of representational painting, I realized how much erasure there had been from obliterating indigenous narratives from the history of North America, so that gave me a very vast canon of work to begin to fill in blanks, to fill in the gaps, and represent histories from our perspective, from an indigenous perspective, and from a Cree perspective,” he said.

“From there, it’s only grown and I keep realizing how much content there still is to explore.”

Monkman is one of several artists featured in a survey show of contemporary Native artists spanning the past several decades. “Art for a New Understanding: Native Perspectives 1950 to Now” will open at the Institute of American Indian Arts’ Museum of Contemporary Native Arts next week and will stay up until July. The show will then travel to Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art and the Brooks Museum in Memphis, ending its run in 2021.

The exhibit originated at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., where MoCNA’s Chief Curator, Manuela Well-Off-Man, worked prior to coming to Santa Fe in 2016. Discussions about a survey exhibition began prior to her job offer at MoCNA, and she continued to work with Crystal Bridges curator Mindy Besaw and independent indigenous art curator Candice Hopkins.

“It’s a show that gives the general public, who may know a little bit about Native art, a chance to look at really the development of different art movements (and) tendencies,” said Well-Off-Man.

Monkman’s “History is Painted by the Victors” is an imaginary encounter in which his alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, is painting Lt. Colonel George Custer’s troops. Custer and his men famously were wiped out in the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn against Northern Plains tribes led by Crazy Horse.

Monkman took direct inspiration from a landscape by 19th-century painter Albert Bierstadt. For his figures, he tapped into the style of Thomas Eakins, a realist painter of the same era known for painting the male nude.

The resulting work, Monkman said, is all about looking at positions of power and challenging them, symbolized by Miss Chief behind the canvas documenting her own observations.

“It’s really about reversing the power and reversing the gaze, and having an indigenous person looking at a European person,” he said.

Due to space, the MoCNA’s exhibition will be smaller than the one at Crystal Bridges. But it still will showcase more than 30 works from about 20 artists based in the U.S. and Canada. The Crystal Bridges show had around 80.

Promoting contemporary work

Well-Off-Man said a goal of the show is to encourage more art spaces to introduce contemporary Native art to their audiences, building on progress on this front in recent years. It features a variety of genres, including painting, sculpture, video, photography, cartoon, basketry and installation pieces. The museum also will host a performance art piece in May from Alutiiq artist Tanya Linklater.

According to Well-Off-Man, viewers will see how modern Native art evolved over the decades.

The oldest work in the show is a 1954 painting from influential Yanktonai Sioux artist Oscar Howe. His abstract and cubist-style painting “Dance of the Heyoka” depicts a clown figure that uses humor to show people right and wrong.

Howe originally trained under Dorothy Dunn, who founded a formal art program at the Santa Fe Indian School in the early 20th century. However, he found her approach was “limited” and ventured into the more modernist styles, according to Well-Off-Man.

The “Dance of the Heyoka” was completed four years before Howe wrote a now-famous letter to Tulsa’s Philbrook Museum of Art after its rejection of his work for an annual show for not being “Indian” enough.

Fritz Scholder's 1968 "Monster Indian." The late IAIA professor's painting comments on people's perception of Native people in the 1960s using pop art and abstract expressionist styles. (Courtesy of IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native American Arts)

Fritz Scholder’s 1968 “Monster Indian.” The late IAIA professor’s painting comments on people’s perception of Native people in the 1960s using pop art and abstract expressionist styles. (Courtesy of IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native American Arts)

A few years later, in 1962, IAIA was founded, and instructors like Lloyd Kiva New and Fritz Scholder encouraged students to experiment in new, contemporary ways, said Well-Off-Man. One of Scholder’s paintings will also be in the exhibition. His 1968 “Monster Indian” plays with pop art and abstract expressionism influences to comment on how Native people were viewed in 1960s America, “often not as a human being,” Well-Off-Man said.

“I would make the point that Fritz Scholder’s and Oscar Howe’s generation, they had more challenges,” said Well-Off-Man. “On one hand, the mainstream art world did not pay attention, rejected them, but also in the Indian art world they were rejected because they were not ‘Indian art.’ They were facing criticism from their own community.”

Still, they paved the way for the present-day indigenous artists who directly participate in the contemporary art world, said Well-Off-Man, including New Mexico-based Cannupa Hanska Luger, Vancouver’s Brian Jungen, and New York painter and sculptor Jeffrey Gibson, who all will have work in the MoCNA show.

She added that a difference between Native artists from decades ago and those working today is that art as activism has become more prominent. While, before, the art was more about working within a certain style or aesthetic, Well-Off-Man said, current pieces are more content-focused.

‘The gaze’

Another contemporary artist in the exhibit is Dana Claxton, also Vancouver-based. She is Hunkpapa Lakota, and works in photography and video. Claxton told the Journal her work explores “how we look and how we see.”

“There’s the gaze,” said Claxton, who’s also an associate professor and department head for the University of British Columbia’s department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory. “It’s the imperial gaze or the male gaze or the privileged gaze; there’s this gaze that goes on that indigenous bodies and culture are subjected to. I’m curious about when that gaze deepens, or it starts to be that you’re looking, and then you start to see. Because I think when you see somebody else’s situation, hopefully you begin to understand it more. And then when you see, what do you do about it in terms of social justice or those kinds of things?”

Vancouver-based Lakota artist Dana Claxton's photo "Headdress" touches on themes of material culture and cultural appropriation. (Courtesy of Iaia Museum Of Contemporary Native American Arts)

Vancouver-based Lakota artist Dana Claxton’s photo “Headdress” touches on themes of material culture and cultural appropriation. (Courtesy of IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native American Arts)

The show will feature her 2015 photograph “Headdress,” in which a woman is adorned with an ornate Native head piece that fully covers her face. Claxton said the work speaks to the appropriation of headdress and who gets to wear historically significant items. But the photograph also comments on material culture more broadly. She said many non-indigenous people’s only experience with the indigenous populace is through material culture, rather than with the people themselves.

“She’s being this material culture … because she can see completely through that headdress, she can see you, and how are you seeing her?” Claxton said of the woman in the photo.

Like Well-Off-Man, Claxton and Monkman stressed the importance of having exhibitions like MoCNA’s.

“You have your moment with the work in the gallery, which is very intimate and contemplative, and then how that experience goes out into a larger public I think is really important for both our countries (the U.S. and Canada) in terms of thinking what is indigenous visibility, what is indigenous sovereignty, what are healthy relations between indigenous and non-indigenous people?” Claxton said. “Contemporary art is a site for such dynamic conversation, experience and consciousness, really.”