As interest in work by indigenous artists is on the rise, two exhibitions of work by Native American artists are making their way around the globe, with a stop at 516 ARTS in Albuquerque.
Two group shows are opening on Saturday, June 29: downstairs, fresh from the Venice Biennale, Air, Land, Seed; and upstairs, Octopus Dreams. (See the end of this article for info on activities and volunteer opportunities.) Both shows are part of a summer/fall series of public programs in Albuquerque presented by 516 ARTS titled Place/Displaced, addressing cultural identity through the significance of place.
Since 1999, Air, Land, Seed curator Nancy Marie Mithlo has been helping create a presence for indigenous artists in a global context at the Venice Biennale. In an interview, she pointed out the works these artists made to articulate their challenges rings a bell for the people historically from Venice and the surrounding areas.
“The folks who live in Venice have many similarities to the people from North America,” Mithlo said. “Inundated with commercial concerns, tourism impact, degradation of land … the large cruise ships in the central canals in Venice … the town cannot sustain that level of impact.”
She said the Venetian people, not unlike Native Americans, are searching for proactive measures so they can at least live with the quality of life that is consistent with their heritage and culture.
Mithlo, who is from the Fort Sill Chiricahua Apache tribe, is the author of an anthropological book published in 2009 called Our Indian Princess: Subverting the Stereotype.
“My tribal entity is named after a fort,” she pointed out. “The fort is the largest artillery base in the free world (while also surrounded by all the wildlife). Many artists are thinking about that intersection and criticizing it because many of our US military machines are named after indigenous groups, like the Apache helicopters. What do we think when the code word Obama used (for the Bin Laden raid) was ‘Geronimo’?” … These tribes are real people while the military go on these global excursions representing us without our input. The ability for the artists to make statements like this and show them to the public is really empowering for the Native nation.”
Octopus Dreams, curated by Suzanne Fricke and Beverly Morris, came out of an invitation from Russia to represent friendship between Russia and America. The show’s title was taken from a story written by one of the artists in the show, N. Scott Momaday, who also won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for his novel House Made of Dawn.
“He wrote this story of an artist walking on the beach and he sees an octopus and puts it back in the water and it swims away,” Fricke said. “And he writes I wonder, if in the dark dark nights of the sea, the octopus dreams of me. I thought about that phrase a lot. It’s a dense phrase; this dark amorphous space where artists reach out to express their ideas.”
The show addresses the unknown wealth in perspective concerning art made by people with indigenous roots, which brings to mind an incident from 1958 involving artist Oscar Howe at Oklahoma’s Philbrook Museum. The piece he submitted for its Native American show was rejected because the judges decided it didn’t look “Native enough.”
“It’s still something people remember,” Fricke said. “He had been abroad during WWII, he fought for the allies, he spent time in Paris looking at Cubism, Orphism, Fauvism and other modern art movements. The subject matter of the piece was a native dance but the way in which he depicted it was not considered acceptable.”
Native art does tend to fall into a narrow definition, but after the experience she’s had with this touring show (next stop, Tokyo), Fricke is pretty sure this way of thinking is on its way out the door.
“I don’t think we’re there at all anymore,” she said. “Artists are no longer accepting those narrow roles. It’s a wonderful thing that happened. Maybe they don’t even think about it like that anymore. We still have artists who have experienced that and it’s not like they’re that old. This is not historic stuff. This is recent that Native artists have been pigeonholed into certain styles.”
Opening Day Events
Saturday, June 29 offers a full day’s worth of activities in Albuquerque. There are also several opportunities for volunteers to get involved in throughout the day; if you would like to participate, email Claude for more details (and expect to start earlier than the times noted below).
9am/11am: Print Blitz and Parade of Flags: Downtown Growers’ Market
Volunteers will help Air, Land, Seed artists John Hitchcock, Emily Arthur, Marwin Begaye and Ryan O’Malley as they invite the public to observe and participate in the production of prints using imagery from the exhibition at 516 ARTS. Free prints will be distributed in the Native tradition of give-aways. The culmination of this event will be the Parade of Flags at 11am. Help the artists and 516 ARTS set up and staff the booth at the growers’ market in the morning and even join in the parade. And bring T-shirts to print on.
4pm: Public Forum: Indigenous Artists in Global Contexts: 516 ARTS
This event brings together curators and artists from Air, Land, Seed & Octopus Dreams for a discussion that will examine current curatorial themes and practices, printmaking as a political intervention, the diasporatic experience, Native sovereignty and how indigenous art has been received and interpreted by international audiences. Help 516 ARTS staff set up for this event along with the immediately following opening.
6-8pm: Opening Reception for Air, Land, Seed & Octopus Dreams
Music by Ramon Bermudez, Jr. and opening comments by special guests City Councilor Isaac Benton and Travis Sauzo, Executive Director, Indian Pueblo Cultural Center.