On the Hudson, Visions for a New Native American Art
By Holland Cotter
August 10, 2023
A frisky group of Indigenous performers, videomakers and sculptors have a presence in the art world they haven’t had before.
A MAGA-style baseball cap, scarlet and sloganeering, sits on a shelf, as if for sale, surrounded by other promotional retail: T-shirts, totes, lighters. “Make Amerika Red Again” is embroidered on the front of the cap, which is also stitched with pretty bead work and topped by a yellow feather.
Where are we? Apparently in the merchandise section of what looks like a combination campaign headquarters, tech showroom, surveillance center and stage set. It’s furnished with desks, chairs, posters and multiple digital screens all belonging to something called the New Red Order, a self-declared “public secret society” of artists and filmmakers seeking to lay bare the “open secret” of Western expansion. Want to know more, maybe join? Call l 1-888-NEW RED1 on the (red) office rotary phone (or your cellphone) for details.
Where we also are is at the Hessel Museum of Art here at Bard College, and more specifically at an exhibition called “Indian Theater: Native Performance, Art, and Self-Determination Since 1969.” The college recently established a Center for Indigenous Studies, and under its auspices a Bard faculty member, the Indigenous scholar Candice Hopkins, has organized a frisky intergenerational group show of some 30 Native American artists (oldest 96; youngest 29), among them Jeffrey Gibson, who will be representing the United States at the 2024 Venice Biennale.
Acknowledgment by the art world — never mind by the real world — of even the existence of contemporary Native American art has been pitifully slow to arrive, and has mostly been generated from within the Indigenous community itself. Hopkins takes one of their initiatives as the springboard for the show.
This one dates from 1969 and coincided with the politically galvanizing occupation of Alcatraz Island by a group of Indigenous activists called Indians of All Tribes. Earlier in the same year, the Native American fashion designer Lloyd Kiva New (1916-2002), co-founder of the Institute of American Indian Arts, then a fledgling school in Santa Fe, N.M., introduced a quietly radical cultural project.
In collaboration with the institute’s dance and drama instructor, Rolland R. Meinholtz, he wrote a treatise proposing the development of a new “American Indian Theatre,” basing it on the premise that much traditional Indigenous art was fundamentally theatrical in nature, incorporating movement, sound, masking, storytelling, communal action, and that these elements could be marshaled to create distinctive new forms. He printed the proposal as a 40-page booklet, an original copy of which opens this show.
His ideas had takers, among them three New York sisters of Kuna/ Rappahannock descent — Lisa Mayo (1924-2013), Muriel Miguel and Gloria Miguel, the show’s senior artist — who in 1976 formed Spiderwoman Theater, now one of the longest-running female companies in the United States.
The group’s low-budget, high-energy presentations were fueled — still are — by a head-spinning cocktail of radical feminism, ethnic consciousness, and raucous humor, all evident at Bard in a full-length video of their “Cabaret: An Evening of Disgusting Songs and Pukey Images” from the late 1970s. (I saw them perform it at the Theater for the New City and they practically blew out the walls.)
The California performance artist James Luna (1950-2018), creator of the beaded “MAGA” cap, also picked up on the notion that humor applied to grim histories could work. (He referred to himself as an “American Indian ceremonial clown.”) In 1985, in response to objectification of Native Americans and the notion that the only good Indigenous art was in the past, he lay wearing only a loin cloth, for hours in a museum display case, motionless but perceptibly breathing.
And in a 1990 installation recreated at Bard called “AA Meeting/Art History,” he tackles the lethal effects of alcoholism on Native life. In a video we see people sitting in a circle talking about trying to stay sober, and we see Luna guzzling what appears to be booze and monologuing about his love of art, as if the two were inseparable.
Other performance videos are different from Luna’s in tone. Over four brief autobiographical pieces, Theo Jean Cuthand travels a path from lesbian to trans male identity with buzzing enthusiasm. Cannupa Hanska Luger’s 2016 drone’s-eye view of mirror-bearing demonstrators at Standing Rock turns a protest into a surging processional. And in a sweet short video by the Montreal-based Asinnajaq (a.k.a. Isabella Rose Rowan-Weetaluktuk), a figure (the artist) rises like an earth spirit from under a pile of stones, looking every bit as surprised by her emergence as we are.
Other artists approach theatricality more obliquely, through costuming. KC Adams’s T-shirts stitched with politically loaded phrases — “Former Land Owner,” “Scalping Is in My Blood” — were originally made for performances. In a series of large color portraits of Indigenous women by the photographer Dana Claxton, the sitters (including Claxton) wear layers of beads and fabrics so dense as to suggest ceremonial regalia.
A multifigure painting titled “Paperdolls for a Post-Colombian World” (2021) by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith — whose powerful Whitney Museum career retrospective closes this Sunday — tells an entire, continuing history of colonial manipulation and repression through details of attire. A near-abstract early painting by Kay WalkingStick embodies a history too, a personal, domestic one. Its single image is of the plain gray work apron WalkingStick wore in the 1970s, as a young mother at home and as a young artist funding her way in her studio.
Big stand-alone sculptures are inherently dramatic. “Deer Woman’s New Certificate-of-Indian-Blood-Skin” by Natalie Ball, which suggests a kind of quilted explosion, certainly has presence. So, in a spooky way, does Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill’s “Counterblaste,” a life-size nude female figure, part human, part animal, made from pantyhose stuffed with tobacco, street debris and wildflowers. Larger than either are fiber weavings, modeled on Indigenous jewelry forms, by Eric-Paul Riege, the exhibition’s youngest participant. But though monumental in size, they’re intimate in effect. Riege uses them as props in performances — pushes them aside, moves them around — and visitors are permitted (encouraged, even) to touch them.
(Several performances — by Gibson, Rebecca Belmore and Maria Hupfield — were commissioned for the show, but experienced only on a limited schedule.)
Sound was a vital component of the 1969 vision for a new American Indian Theater, which I take to mean a new Indian Art. In the early 1960s, when a craze for folk and ethnic music was high, a company called Indian Records, Inc. released many LPs of Native music. The company later went bust but some of the LPs survive and we hear them — the drumming, the chanting — playing on a gallery turntable and filtering through the show.
In the same gallery, but displayed under glass, are recordings made by Ida Halpern, an ethnomusicologist who came to British Columbia from Vienna in the 1930s to document Indigenous music, only to learn that not only was the playing of Native music outlawed by the government, but that Indigenous communities considered certain religious music too sacred to be heard by non-Native listeners. The doubly enforced silence turns Halpern’s recordings into visual artifacts — you can look at but not listen to them — and is commemorated in Sonny Assu’s wall installation of 136 glowing but unplayable copper records.
There’s no such ban in effect in the loquacious audiovisual installation, “Conscientious Conscripture,” that is the New Red Order (N.R.O.) headquarters. Founded by the artists Jackson Polys, Adam Khalil and Zack Khalil, the collective’s project is essentially an extended satirical performance, soaked in dark humor and intent on exposing America’s love/hate relationship with Native culture, which it has embraced in fantasy form and in reality made every effort to erase. N.R.O.’s goal is to get beyond land acknowledgments and diversity box-checking to, in its own words, “promote Indigenous futures and collect on colonial debts.”
How’s it doing on that agenda? Who can say? The project’s still new and, after all, it’s only art. But if enough “only art” accumulates — remember its role in the AIDS crisis? — it can generate usable power. And at the moment, Native American art has a presence in the art world it hasn’t had before.
Venice is still a year away, but there’s a major survey of contemporary Native work opening on Sept. 22 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in D.C., organized by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. Earlier in the month a show of four young Native artists will open at James Fuentes Gallery on the Lower East Side, with Natalie Ball as co-curator. In November Ball will make a solo Whitney bow.
And with more coming, maybe new American art will finally trend red, as Luna insisted.