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More than five hundred cultural groups, and many more prior to Spanish colonization in the early sixteenth century, have created the body of art attributed to Native North Americans. The category is thus not cohesive, ranging from ancient petroglyphs to contemporary photographs, and from horse-effigy dance sticks to installation and performance art. In its great diversity, however, it typically incorporates and conveys a relationship to place and community.
In the twenty-first century many art historians, as well as scholars in related and interdisciplinary fields, have begun to refer to art produced by the indigenous populations of North America—from the Rio Grande to the Arctic Circle and from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts—as “First American art.” The term establishes the corpus of diverse material artifacts made by original and descendant inhabitants of these lands—and not by occupants who arrived through waves of colonial encounters beginning in the sixteenth century—as primary among the arts of the United States and Canada (where it is called “First Nations art”). Even in its great diversity, this art typically incorporates and conveys a relationship to place and community. Often a deliberate reference to identity (or intimacy with the culture) is central to its expressive intent. The wide span of this art created over space, time, and cultures attests to its vitality and conceptual continuity, from 4500 BCE Lower Mississippi Valley mound architecture to the recently opened National Museum of the American Indian, a native-designed structure housing the world’s largest collection of First American art.
Ancient architectural ruins in the Southwest, sites that have now been differentiated as pre-European contact, include cultures of the Anasazi (700– 1400 CE), Hohokam (550–1400 CE), and Mogollon (200–1150 CE). All these cultures created painted murals, decoratively elaborated pottery, worked shell and stone, and early textiles that tangibly evinced a technologically advanced “primitive” society perceived as a nascent civilization. The material remains of other ancient peoples, including the Adena (1100 BCE–200 CE), Hopewell (100 BCE–500 CE), and Mississippian cultures (still noted for extensive mound construction in 1000 CE) in the east and central United States, together with Norton Tradition, Old Bering Sea, Dorset, and Thule cultures in the Canadian Arctic (spanning the period 500 BCE–1000 CE), provide evidence of America’s antiquity, and are today also appreciated for their aesthetic legacy.
But with contributions from more than five hundred cultural groups and many more prior to Spanish colonization, the category is by no means cohesive. First American art spans an array of media, from petroglyphs to contemporary photographs, for instance, and from horse-effigy dance sticks to installation and performance art. Critical reception to indigenous art is divided and often depends on whether the works were wrought in traditional (that is, historic and precontact) materials or created in modern times in contemporary modes.
First American Art: From “Curiosity” to Aesthetic
The need to designate “First American art” evolves from a long-standing debate about whether or not art work created by the indigenous peoples of North America can be called “art.” Europeans (especially the Spanish, English, Dutch, French, and Russians) began acquiring “curiosities” made by the native inhabitants of the “New World” when they arrived on its foreign soil, and many of these objects still exist in European museums in cities such as Berlin, Helsinki, Leningrad, London, and Paris. In the nineteenth century objects made by American Indians became the focus of systematic U.S. collecting and formed the core of most urban museum collections: Indian imagery provided a potent focus of the young nation-state until France’s 1883 gift of the Statue of Liberty.
Indigenous peoples often exchanged valued objects with Europeans, symbolically solidifying international relations and sometimes representing them. For instance, the first treaty between the Haudenosaunee peoples and the Dutch settlers in their region was recorded in the Two-Row Wampum Belt in 1613. The pattern of purple wampum beads sewn in two strips against a background of white beads signifies the path of two vessels, an indigenous canoe and a European ship, as they travel the river of life together, parallel but never touching. The three underlying white stripes symbolize peace, friendship, and respect. Another iconic example in Native American art history is the late eighteenth-century Mandan or Lakota pictographic bison robe attributed to the collection acquired by the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804–1806). On battle robes such as this one, made from tanned buffalo hide decorated with deerskin fringe, bird and porcupine quills, and native plant materials, indigenous artists used brown, orange, and green pigments to paint scenes using a complex iconography that detailed their exploits in war. The Lewis and Clark robe, now at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard, provides an early example of Plains biographical art and serves as a symbol of the diplomacy and political relations that helped form the United States.
The observations that the German artist Albrecht Durer recorded in his 1520 travel journal about an exhibit in Brussels of Aztec jewelry, clothing, weaponry, and armor—“nothing . . . rejoiced my heart so much as these things, for I saw amongst them wonderful works of art”—marks a historic moment in the European appreciation of the potential value of objects from the Americas (Durer 1520). (Hernan Cortes had sent the Aztec treasures as tribute to Charles V, Spanish king and Holy Roman Emperor, who put them on display throughout Europe.) Such exposure increased as these objects were housed in national museums beginning in the eighteenth century. Representation of Native Americans began to pervade the wider visual media beginning in the sixteenth century, sometimes as illustrative material accompanying traveling exhibitions about indigenous peoples, but by the nineteenth century Indians became pictorial subjects in their own right (in the paintings of George Catlin, for example) or were portrayed as “natural” elements within other genres like landscape painting (in the work of Albert Bierstadt and George Caleb Bingham).
The cultural evolutionism of nineteenth-century theorists such as Lewis Henry Morgan provided the stimulus for large-scale collecting in America. Patterned after their natural history counterparts, exhibitions resulting from nineteenth-century archaeological and ethnological exploration were displayed in museums as “remnants of a waning race” organized by the culture–area approach, a classification of peoples by geographic and environmental criteria that often still informs even art museum exhibitions. In those displays and the curatorial descriptions that accompanied them, Pueblo ruins were likened to European prototypes as an “ancient Pompeii,” “Greek theatre,” or “Roman forum” (as, for example, in William H. Jackson’s Reconstruction of Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon). By the twentieth century Pueblo architecture and other native influences inspired diverse architects to develop specifically American forms. Mary Colter used Hopi, Zuni, and Navajo elements in the tourist-oriented buildings she designed to rim the Grand Canyon; Vincent Scully, the renowned art historian, wrote (and taught) extensively about native influences in American architecture; and Frank Lloyd Wright incorporated native influences in form as well as in decorative elements that he himself designed, such as the friezes of Native American chieftains found on a the lintels of a house in Milwaukee.
World fairs and industrial expositions, notably the U.S. Centennial Exhibition (Philadelphia, 1876) and the World’s Pre-Columbian Exhibition (Chicago, 1893), were important venues for the representation of America’s native peoples and their arts (although both were pictured as technological inferiors). Euro-American intellectuals gained access to native peoples not only through visual and textual representations, but also through intimate association with them. Aby Warburg, a central figure in modern art history specializing in the Italian Renaissance, was impressed by the religious practices of the Hopi Indians he visited and photographed. Warburg, who considered his encounter with the Hopi as a journey to the origins of human imagery, collected a number of carved and painted wooden katchinas and dance wands in the 1890s. For other Euro-American collectors, too, ritual objects have been particularly desirable (despite the consternation of the natives to whom such objects remain living beings). Western European fine artists have continued to use non- Western images and objects to explore philosophical ideas and to challenge and subvert their own cultural conventions.
The aesthetic concern with Primitivism, a handmaiden of Modernism in which Native American art figured importantly, was prominent from the 1890s through World War II; its influence is still felt in current non-native representations of Native American art. The Aesthetic and Arts and Crafts movements also stimulated a wider interest in—and the collection of—Native American objects in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Beginning in the twentieth century, studies of Native American art (notably the elaborate carvings and richly costumed performances of the Northwest Coast’s stratified societies, many of which were explored in the seminal work of anthropologist Franz Boas and his students) helped to turn academic attention away from evolutionary concerns to the formal properties of objects and their cultural contexts. In fashioning a particularly American fine-art tradition, namely Abstract Expressionism, New York avantgarde artists, chief among them Jackson Pollack and Barnett Newman, drew on Native American art between the two world wars and rejected European academic traditions. By espousing a universal concept of art in which visual qualities were valued independent of historical and cultural specificity, these artists (and critics such as Clement Greenberg) demonstrated the value of native cultures to a modern American heritage on the eve of global conflict at mid-century. Canada and Australia, sister postcolonial nation-states, have also utilized the aesthetic value of indigenous productions in their national identities.
The Museum of Modern Art’s 1941 exhibit “Indian Art of the United States” and especially the later “‘Primitivism’ in Twentieth Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern” (1984) were watershed events in the representation and classification of Native American objects, provoking academic debate that has lasted into the twenty-first century. In the twentieth century, American museums were distinguished from their European counterparts by their emphasis on modern or contemporary and primitive art over classical forms, with Native American art figuring prominently in several national and international traveling exhibitions (especially the one that commemorated the U.S. Bicentennial). In Europe prior to World War II, the surrealists favored Native American art as a way of subverting established canons and establishing new syntheses of perception and representation in opposition to modernist trends.
Thus by the mid-twentieth century a concentrated articulation of aesthetic value for these objects emerged in concert with an increasing number of named artists and private collectors; an expansive market, wide museum exhibition, and art historical surveys characterized the last quarter of that century. In the Western art tradition work must be inscribed into a canon that assesses its quality and defines its criteria, and Native American work was just beginning to be “written” as a tradition. By the late twentieth century Native American art became a recognized field with the full complement of institutional networks, including academic specialization. Controversy over classification still centered on how to appreciate “traditional” work that seemed to morph out of an altered social landscape by incorporating European materials and designs (such as the flourishing “souvenirs” of Native American art from the Northeast in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, or post-reservation Plains beadwork). Debates arose over how to distinguish between an ethnological artifact and an aesthetic object—natural history and art history paradigms, respectively.
In 2003 the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian opened a three-year-long exhibition culled from the Charles and Valerie Diker collection and called “First American Art.” The exhibit departed from the traditional, historically influenced approach of displaying and analyzing native works according to tribe or region; instead it attempted to define a First American art paradigm. Because the Dikers were drawn to the work they collected by its beauty rather than by an interest in a specific “category” of work, the native and non-native artists, curators, and anthropologists involved in the planning the exhibit sought a way to present the collection based on a First American Art aesthetic. They isolated and explored the following seven qualities inherent to, or elicited from, the work of Native Americans, and structured the exhibit around ways to explore them: integrity (to tribal identity, values, and ideals, despite the incorporation of new materials and techniques); emotion (in response to ideas and materials combined); movement (literally kinetic, or symbolic through pattern and design); idea (being part of a larger system of knowledge and philosophy, or being the idea itself); composition (the physical and spiritual combination of technique and materials); intimacy (the relationship of the maker and the user to the art); and vocabulary (the ability to express and encode the culture in materials, technique, and iconography). While such components may arguably be assigned to apply to world art (the material objects created by all cultures, whether they are to be deemed art or craft) the effort was an important step in a world-historical way—an opportunity to model not just exhibitions of Native American art, but the field of study itself, so that art can help to explain the functioning and beliefs of a given culture.
Present-Day Identity and Artists
Difficulty or a lack of interest in identifying the maker of an object, combined with the problem of determining the maker’s reputation for quality work, contributed to anonymity throughout the history of Native American artistic creations. Due to the frequently remote locations of origin, the fact that objects were often traded among indigenous groups and European merchants before arriving in private or public institutions, and the social nature of production in many traditional arts, individual makers and even tribal attributions could not always be made. Further, until the twentieth century, as a result of forced assimilation policies and compulsory off-reservation education, linguistic differences also separated objects from their original contexts and meanings in non-native eyes. Hence, the recognition of individual artists was an important twentieth-century development because it contributed to the value of the work in the art world, and yet many unnamed native artists still produce a vast array of aesthetic material without such recognition.
Among the notable practitioners of traditional native arts before the twentieth century who did not remain anonymous is the Washoe artist Dat So La Lee (Louisa Keyser) who died in 1925 yet gave name and face to the otherwise perceived “utilitarian” (and hence derided) aesthetic practice of basketry. Until very recently, these traditional art forms and others (for example, Navajo weaving) continued to be represented by non-natives as objects and practices of a presumed “past” way of life, not the aesthetic expression of surviving and thriving contemporary peoples who are giving continuing meaning to their lives. New forms have arisen from these precursors, such as haute couture clothing utilizing Northwest Coast crest art (Dorothy Grant and Robert Davidson, Haida) and the fine-art tapestries of Ramona Sakiestewa, Hopi.
Pueblo pottery and Northwest Coast carving continue to flourish today, some having undergone revivals through stimulation by traders, dealers, and native artists, and often using museum collections as prototypes. The Hopi-Tewa potter Nampeyo, active from the 1880s to her death in 1942, was the first Indian artist recognized by name in the art world in her lifetime. Her descendants, including Dextra Quotskuyva and many others, continue to make distinctive hand-coiled and ground-fired pottery of local materials interpreted in new ways. Robert Davidson, Haida, works to expand the carving tradition recognized in the nineteenth century and practiced by his forebear Tahaygen (Charles Edenshaw).
Training in contemporary media and studio art for native persons was first undertaken in Santa Fe’s School of Indian Art, founded in the interwar years (and often called the Dorothea Dunn school after one of its most prominent teachers); it became the Institute of American Indian Arts in 1962. Renowned and award-winning students include Pablita Velarde (1918–2006), Santa Clara Pueblo, a watercolorist who later turned to using pigments she derived from minerals and rock, and which she ground herself; Allan Houser (1914–1994), Chiricahua Apache, a sculptor of bronze, marble, and stone whose vision to create a family compound near Santa Fe culminated in sculpture gardens and studios that are now open to the public by appointment; Fritz Scholder (1937–2005), Luiseno, a prolific and controversial expressionist painter who used distortion, vivid color, and explosive brushstrokes to explore publicly held stereotypes of Native American; and Gerald McMaster (b. 1953), Plains Cree, who in 1995 curated an exhibition of First Nations Canadian artists at the prestigious Venice Biennale.
Formal training now occurs in departments at major universities and art schools across the United States and Canada, launching a new generation of artists eager to articulate the significance of their art. These artists typically work in contemporary or nontraditional media but often combine elements of both; they create provocative works that challenge the boundaries of conventional representations in traditional work as well as the romanticism reproduced in them (the densely packed compositions of Jane Ash Poitras, Cree/Chipewyan, provide an example).
Recent scholarship in both anthropology and art history, by non-natives and natives alike, has begun to break the steel-like frame of criteria used to evaluate “primitve,” “traditional,” and “contemporary” media. New studies also explore the cultural significance of media (for instance, clay, grasses, hide, or wood) from the practitioners’ perspectives, and look at how language and storytelling, as “indigenous national histories,” construct not only the object’s value but also the activity or process of making art. Native voices have been reclaimed and given prominence in a new articulation of value, as the enumeration of seven aesthetic principles articulated by the “First American Art” exhibit at the Smithsonian attests. Manipulating a variety of media, including that of their ancestors, these artists challenge the very basis of aesthetic appreciation in the Western fine-art world. Their art and the articulation of its meaning is now being inscribed into the art-historical discourse. This marks a new moment in both the philosophy and the history of art. Gender, of course, is an integral dimension of this transformation, since native women have long been recognized as artists and creators of material forms that embody and help to reproduce local systems of knowledge. In this global environment, Native North American, First Nations, or First American art reveals how hybrid forms based on the knowledge of indigenous contexts relate to a wider world and thus actively realize beauty and meaning in rich and varied ways. This achievement may yet be the greatest influence of this art in world history.
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