Native Americans and other indigenous groups were not recognized as fine artists for decades. Native art has been displayed in isolation and separately from Western and American art. It was often curated to be an anthropological artifact and not a contemporary expression. Well-meaning exhibitions in prestigious venues such as the Art Institute of Chicago and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art have taken into account this history. The shows were not without criticism, however, as they lacked critical input from indigenous curators, scholars, and advisors.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum announced last week that the 10th Renwick Gallery Invitational will open in May 2023 and feature six indigenous artists. It will be curated by Lara M. Evans, director of the Research Center for Contemporary Native Arts at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Santa Fe. Evans, who served as a member of the panel of jurors for the exhibit and is also familiar with contemporary Native American craftspeople, says that the exhibition places “Native Artists as part of American Art.”
The 2023 Renwick Invitational will showcase works by artists from tribes in Alaska, Washington, and Minnesota. The works are organized around the themes of honor and burdens, Evans says. They will also reflect the “sense of duty that comes with these honors and obligations,” Evans said. Anya Montiel is a curator from the National Museum of the American Indian and a member of the Smithsonian’s Anya Montiel. She says, “As someone with nearly 25 years of experience in Native art, I’m very excited about the 2023 Renwick Invitational.” Montiel says that there have been previous Native art exhibits at the Renwick, including “Pueblo Pottery Zuni and Acoma Designs From the Smithsonian Collections” in 1972. She says that the new exhibition is an opportunity for fans of American crafts to see how Indigenous worldviews and homelands are reflected in what Native artists make today.
The artists selected to carry out the show’s vision are Joe Feddersen (Arrow Lakes/Okanagan); sisters Lily Hope (Tlingit) and Ursala Hudson (Tlingit), who will work together as a duo; Erica Lord (Athabaskan/Inupiat); Geo Neptune (Passamaquoddy); and Maggie Thompson (Fond du Lac Ojibwe).
Hope says she is “blown away” and adds that it was an honor to be included in the show. She learned Chilkat and Ravenstail weaves from her mother, Clarissa Rizal, a Tlingit. Hope says that if she wanted to spend more time with her mother, she would have to learn the Chilkat style of weaving, which is practiced by Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian, as well as other Northwest Coast nations.
Hope estimates that one Chilkat quilt, made with yarn from mountain goats’ wool and cedar bark, can take between 2,000 hours or up to four years to complete. Hope has given up her career as a teacher to teach weaving. She says that only a few weavers are still making the ceremonial robes. Hope says that after her mother died from cancer in 2016, weaving was “a revelation, an awakening, and acceptance of this as the job I’m meant to do.” She also notes that “making sure more than two people step into my footsteps as I pass into spirit realm” is another reason for weaving.
She is currently working on a blanket called “Between Worlds” in honor of Rizal. Hope is excited to make and present a woven fire dish that will transport the favorite foods of a deceased loved one to the spirit world. These fire dishes are usually burned in honor of the dead.
Hope will create some works with Hudson, who has been awarded a 2021 LIFT grant by the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation in Vancouver. Hudson is a weaver and photographer. Hope was also awarded the 2021 Shift grant by the Foundation, which supports Native-focused projects that address social, environmental, or economic justice.
She assisted Alaska in its #WhyAKMasksUp Project to encourage native people to wear masks if the COVID-19 pandemic occurs. Hope made armbands honoring Black Lives Matter, as well as Chilkat Protector masks. The Renwick show will feature some of the Protector Masks.
Hope and Hudson hope to use their pieces together to transform what was traditionally woven by men for women into a more feminine environment, Hope says. She says they also want to recognize that Chilkat weaving as an art form is alive and evolving.
Other artists will also present contemporary works rooted in tradition.
Evans says Feddersen is a printmaker and glass artist who creates abstract patterns based on everyday life. He depicts them in his work in the same way that patterns are used in the arts of the Plateau Region, between the Rocky Mountains and the Cascades. She says that Feddersen is transforming traditional knowledge into new materials and contexts. For example, he uses yarn to weave his baskets instead of native grasses and glass. His work tends to reflect the relationship between humans and the environment.
Lord, a multimedia artist, will use graphical representations to highlight the theme of “burden” for the Renwick Show. This is done by illustrating the genetic material that causes certain diseases that disproportionately affect Native communities. These works will resemble ” load straps,” which are universally used by Native cultures to carry heavy loads. Evans says that at the Renwick, they will have multiple meanings. This includes the disease burden on populations who are at risk.
Neptune is a basket-maker, activist, educator, and two-spirit who will highlight the importance of keeping traditions alive, even though traditional materials are disappearing. The non-binary artist, who was awarded a $50,000 Berresford Fellowship in February 2021, uses the wood of black ash trees to weave brightly colored and whimsical baskets. The emerald ash borer is an invasive Asian species that has decimated black ash trees in the Great Lakes region and northeast. Neptune has been weaving ever since she was four years old. She learned to knit from their grandmother, Molly Neptune Parker, a National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellow. Evans says that they now teach the techniques to the next generation and are also working to preserve the trees. She says, “That’s both a burden and an honor.”
The show will have a theme of grief, as it is often associated with honor. Some artists will directly refer to the Covid-19 pandemic, while others will do so in a more peripheral way.
Evans said that the Minnesota textile artist Maggie Thompson, who died in 2014 from pancreatic cancer, was “driven” by her desire to honor her late father. The utilitarian will become beautiful in her installation. Traditional star quilts will adorn a series of body bags. Evans said that many people have experienced grief due to the pandemic. “To have something so plain, functional, and gruesome, transformed into something beautiful and honoring a particular person is really touching,” Evans said.
Evans wants visitors to gain a deeper understanding of the themes of honor and burdens. She also hopes they will “be able to see patterns in their lives” and appreciate the work of Native artists.
Hope wants to send a strong message. She says, “This is the launching pad for not only indigenous craft to be elevated to fine arts but also craft work that’s been noticed as fine artwork.” “Because that’s what it is.”