Through Living Eyes - Exhibit expands Indigenous art beyond stereotypes

Image Courtesy Crystal Bridges Jaune Quick-to-See Smith's "Trade (Gifts for Trading Land with White People)" uses humor to examine the issues of stereotypes, as well as relationships to land and the Native peoples' removal from it.
Image Courtesy Crystal Bridges Jaune Quick-to-See Smith's "Trade (Gifts for Trading Land with White People)" uses humor to examine the issues of stereotypes, as well as relationships to land and the Native peoples' removal from it.

Even before one steps through the doors to the new temporary exhibition at Crystal Bridges Museum, art is already on display, drawing the viewer in to the ongoing conversation of what exactly constitutes American art. "Art for a New Understanding: Native Voices, 1950s to Now" challenges the viewer to consider the often neglected perspective of Indigenous peoples as part of the American experience, and further, what exactly modern Native art can be in that context.

"One of [the important things about the exhibition] is this insistence and, just, persistent voice that Native people are stuck in the past," co-curator Mindy Besaw told What's Up! in a previous interview. "They're very much alive, dealing with the same issues many of us are dealing with today. So [it's] that show of, 'We're here and this is our voice.' So how can we expand our notions of contemporary art when we look at contemporary art and issues through the Native lens?"


‘Art for a New Understanding: Native Voices, 1950s to Now’

WHEN — Through Jan. 7

WHERE — Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville

COST — Free; a ticket can be reserved at Guest Services

INFO — 418-5774,


Make Your Own:

Artist-Led Workshops

Crystal Bridges will host several artists included in the “Native Voices” exhibition for lectures, demonstrations and workshops. Adult workshops led by artists in the exhibition include:

Oct. 14

Sculpture with Anna Tsouhlarakis — An introductory sculptural workshop featuring recycled and foraged items, 1-5 p.m. All materials are provided. $55 ($44/members).

Oct. 28

Painting with Yatika Fields — High-color painting workshop inspired by public art aesthetics, 1-5 p.m. All materials are provided. $55 ($44/members).

Nov. 9

Equity Sewing Circle with Artist Marie Watt — Travel to the Cherokee Arts Center in Tahlequah, Okla., to meet the artist, connect with neighbors, add to a new collaborative work of art and take part in conversations around the theme of equity, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. No sewing experience required; all ages welcome. Free. 918-453-57728.

Some 80 pieces representing more than 40 Native communities across Canada and the United States -- from paintings and sculptures to textiles and performance art -- come together for a more inclusive survey of American art than is often presented in a museum setting. What's more, many of the representations of Native peoples in contemporary culture are often built around myths and stereotypes, or are a romanticizing of "the proud American Indian." These contemporary artists challenge and critique those conventions while reclaiming authorship of their own histories in this country.

"If the landscape in this work feels very familiar, that is because it's based on another beloved landscape painter," Besaw says of one of the large paintings in the exhibition. In his work "History Is Painted by the Victors," Kent Monkman reimagines one of Hudson River School artist Albert Bierstadt's sweeping American landscapes. Monkman disputes the idea of Manifest Destiny by populating his work with images of a Native woman painting naked white men, including Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer.

"By using American history as that jumping off point to reverse that perspective and narrative, [Monkman] is playfully taking back authorship of this [moment]," Besaw continues.

Despite the potentially delicate nature of the historical themes at play throughout the exhibition, viewers may be surprised -- and perhaps relieved -- to know some pieces like Monkman's are meant to break the tension, in a way.

"It's OK to laugh," Besaw assures a silent tour group on a recent Thursday morning ahead of the exhibition's opening. Standing before Jaune Quick-to-See Smith's piece "Trade (Gifts for Trading Land with White People)" -- which facetiously suggests that perhaps Indigenous people can trade the trinkets bearing their stereotypical representations for the land white people "traded" centuries ago -- Besaw notes how playfulness is used as a point of connection in several works. "We see humor as a repeated element [used] to get to these narratives."

For "Native Voices," those narratives extend beyond the exhibition space, as well. An installation in the museum's courtyard is a time-based work titled "Freeze," that will be on display until it melts away. And a few minutes to the southwest, at the corner of Second and Main streets on the downtown square, Tulsa-based artist Yatika Fields has completed a large-scale mural to remain in downtown Bentonville, even after the conclusion of the exhibition.

The mural "encompasses this exhibition, and it describes who I am as a Native artist, [and] it also describes who we are as people and our ability to survive," Fields shares. "When I come into a mural, I do it organically -- I don't do any sketches [before arriving]. I really see it and feel what it needs on site."

The mural occupies one of the walls of the building housing Cripps Law Firm. In working with the owner of the building, Fields decided to incorporate the image of Lady Justice with her blindfold and scales. In blending elements from his heritage, the piece speaks to the issues Indigenous communities -- and, truly, all people of color -- still face today, Fields says.

"The blindfold is coming open with the wind, [and] she's revealing the eye, kind of seeing the ills of society today," he explains. "It's a very communal piece, so it needs to speak to the level. And it's also facing the Confederate [statue] in the square, so it's kind of alleviating that tension, but also it's fighting [that] with beauty."

Following its debut at Crystal Bridges, the exhibition will travel to the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe, N.M., where former Crystal Bridges curator and exhibition co-curator Manuela Well-Off-Man is now the chief curator, then on to the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in North Carolina and the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in Tennessee.


Image Courtesy Crystal Bridges Brian Jungen's series of masks, including "Prototype for New Understanding #2," on display during the exhibition, call attention to the ways images in popular culture shape an understanding of Indigenous peoples.


Spiderwoman Theater is the oldest continually running women’s theater company in North America. Sisters Lisa Mayo, Gloria Miguel and Muriel Miguel challenge stereotypes and champion feminism by bridging cultural art forms of storytelling, dance and music with the practice of contemporary Western theater. The performance art is included in the temporary exhibition.


“This group of artists take Native traditions and really twist it and push it to the max,” says exhibition co-curator Mindy Besaw. For example, she points to these baskets created by Shan Goshorn. “The material is photographs of children who are at residential schools or other documents that then get woven into traditional Cherokee basket forms, [but] the material [speaks] to more of an issue of removal that is very relevant today but also part of the history.”

NAN What's Up on 10/14/2018