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‘An innovative approach to art education’

T.C. Cannon (Caddo/Kiowa), “Self Portrait in the Studio, 1975,” edition 50/200, 2006 woodblock on paper, 25×19.5 inches. (Courtesy of UNM Press)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

The IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts began on a basketball court in the old Santa Fe Indian School.

From those humble beginnings, it grew from a depository of student art into a collection of 9,000 objects encompassing some of the finest Indigenous art in the country.

“Making History” (2020 University of New Mexico Press) guides readers through that genesis into more contemporary interpretations of Native life.

America Meredith (Swedish/Cherokee), “Bambi Makes Some Extra Bucks at The Studio,” 2002, acrylic on Masonite, 26.5×32.5 inches.

In many ways inseparable from the museum, the Institute of American Indian Arts is the only tribal college in the U.S. devoted to the arts.

Challenging and redefining preconceived notions of American Indian art, the innovative school has produced such shooting stars as T.C. Cannon, Jason Garcia, Roxanne Swentzel, America Meredith, Bob Haozous, Dan Namingha, Jody Naranjo, Kevin Red Star, and a litany of artists showing their work in both galleries and at the annual Santa Fe Indian Market. Allan Houser, Linda Lomahaftewa, N. Scott Momaday and Fritz Scholder taught there.

Established in 1962 under the Kennedy administration, IAIA began in the old Santa Fe Indian School on Cerrillos Road, museum director Patsy Phillips said.

“It was originally a boarding school for Indians,” she said, adding that (U.S. Poet Laureate) “Joy Harjo went to school at IAIA.”

Designer Lloyd Kiva New and educator George Boyce co-founded the school with funding from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

By 1975, it had expanded into a two-year arts college. By 2013, it had developed a master’s degree program on its 140-acre campus 12 miles south of downtown Santa Fe.

Today, the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts sits in the old Post Office, a Pueblo Revival building listed in the National Register of Historic Places, off the Santa Fe Plaza.

“They started collecting from the student art work,” Phillips said. “It was an innovative approach to art education.”

IAIA’s teaching philosophy emphasized cultural difference as the basis for creative expression. This approach represented an about-face from the philosophies of previous Indian boarding schools. Teachers promoted and encouraged a sense of pride in Native culture. It was an intentional departure from the flat “studio-style” painting of the 1930s developed at the Santa Fe Indian School under Dorothy Dunn. It was deliberately contemporary.

“There was nothing like it in the country,” Phillips said. “They gave students the liberty to create how they wanted to create. They weren’t put in a box. And they got a lot of national attention.

“Our collection is mainly based from those early years; the ’60s to the ’70s,” she said. “Students were basically required to give back their work. It was a common practice at art schools in general.”

Today, the museum uses grant funding to purchase art, “but we usually buy student work,” Phillips said. “Every year, we curate and collect student work.”

Today, that work includes T.C. Cannon’s (Kiowa/Cado) famous “Self-Portrait in the Studio” (1975), depicting the cowboy-hatted artist against a mountainous window.

“T.C. was so important because he took the Indian of the day and showed the Indian of the day,” Phillips said.

Cannon was a Scholder protégé. He embodied the activism, cultural transition and creative expression that defined America in the 1960s and 1970s. His work is deeply personal, yet undeniably political, reflecting his cultural heritage, experience as a Vietnam War veteran, and the turbulent social and political period during which he worked.

Cannon and Scholder exhibited together at the Smithsonian Institution. Their work subverted visual stereotypes about Native Americans, creating an exploration in irony and kitsch, opening a new phase of contemporary art.

“There’s discussion of whether T.C. copied Scholder or Scholder copied T.C.,” Phillips said. “I think everybody influenced everybody.”

Scholder was known for his expressionist paintings, complete with distortions, explosive brushwork and vivid colors.

“He painted on huge canvases,” Phillips said. “He painted the large Indian. A lot of his work was traditional, but the colors and the ways he painted were very different. He would try to paint other images, but he always came back to the large Indian because it sold.”

Santa Clara Pueblo sculptor Swentzel created full-sized clay figures imbued with the human spirit. Swentzel’s work addresses personal and social commentary, reflecting respect for family, cultural heritage, and for the Earth.

“She was one of the first to create sculpture of the Indian people,” Phillips said. “People kind of really connect with the characters she creates.”

“Making History” is the result of eight years of fundraising, group meetings, conference calls and volunteer work. IAIA will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2022.

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