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Exhibit takes different look at Native art

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Albert Bierstadt’s famous painting of “Mount Corcoran” captured a mammoth display of the Sierra Nevada celebrating American grandeur.

Kent Monkman’s response to the Hudson River artist’s circa 1876 showpiece depicts the landscape through a specifically Native American lens.

“Monkman repurposes this historic scene with Custer’s 7th Cavalry,” Institute of American Indian Arts Museum of Contemporary Native Arts curator Manuela Well-Off-Man said.

The artist’s irreverent take captures the white soldiers sunning and bathing pre-Battle of the Little Bighorn. He places himself in the center painting at an easel, using a paintbrush to expose the immorality of Manifest Destiny.

“He presents himself as this drag queen,” Well-Off-Man said. “He inserts the victor into the scene.”

Monkman’s “History Is Painted by the Victors” serves as the centerpiece of the traveling exhibition “Art for a New Understanding – Native Perspectives 1950s to Now,” open at the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts through July 19. There will also be a handful of films screened as part of the exhibit.

The survey includes such familiar names as Fritz Scholder, Oscar Howe and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, as well as multimedia artist Cannupa Hanska Luger.

Hanska Luger (Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara/Lakota) works outside Santa Fe. His “Mirror Shield Project” captures Native protesters holding up full-length mirrors at the Standing Rock North Dakota Pipeline protest to protect water rights in 2016. To create the still photograph, the artist arranged the protesters in the shape of a water serpent. He took inspiration from Ukrainian women who held up their compact mirrors to police as they protested a corrupt government.

“They held up their compacts so the police could see themselves committing violent acts,” Well-Off-Man said.

Scholder’s iconic “Monster Indian,” 1968, is an oil-on-canvas from the artist’s “American Indian” series, lent by IAIA board Chairman Loren Kieve.

“We have never before exhibited it in the museum,” Well-Off-Man said.

The painting protests Native American mistreatment.

“He combines different art movements – the Pop Art color work; distorted face with expressionist brushwork. He said the Indian is a paradox – a monster to himself and a nonperson to society.”

Dana Claxton (Hunkpapa Lakota) uses beads and jewelry to comment on Native imagery in the fashion industry. Strands of beads and pendants cover a model’s face like a shroud. “She is a very beautiful photographer,” Well-Off-Man said. “These were gifts to her by friends of different tribes. The fashion industry of course doesn’t pay attention to this and the original native designs lose their meaning.”

“Art for a New Understanding” traces multiple timelines with key historic events, highlighting artists from what is now known as Canada and the U.S. whose paintings, sculptures, textiles, photographs, videos and performances tell stories that are both intensely personal and broadly relevant.

The exhibition was organized by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, in Bentonville, Ark. Support for this exhibition and its national tour is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Sotheby’s Prize.