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Indian Modernism: Selections from the Silberman Collection

October 21, 2006 - March 25, 2007


A new exhibit in the Arthur and Shifra Silberman Gallery of Native American Art at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum draws on American Indian prints, paintings, and sculpture from the Silberman Collection that show the movement from traditional-looking works to work incorporating mainstream art influences.

"Indian Modernism: Selections from the Silberman Collection" contains more than 40 works illustrating the diverse expressions of the late 20th-century American Indian artists. Some of these works contain easily identifiable cultural imagery; others do not. The exhibited works include sculpture by Bob Haozous (Chiricahua Apache) and John Hoover (Inupiat), and paintings by Joe Hilario Herrera (Cochiti), Tony Da (San Ildefonso), Kevin Red Star (Crow) and Harry Fonseca (Maidu).

Many prominent 20th-century American Indian artists were directly or indirectly influenced by art training programs at the University of Oklahoma in Norman and the Santa Fe Indian School in New Mexico. Both institutions encouraged their students to produce work using forms and content that looked uniquely "Indian."

A handful of Kiowa and other artists received instruction at the University of Oklahoma after 1926. They were there encouraged to recall and paint dances, ceremonies, historic subjects, and reservation scenes. Their classroom instruction provided little technical training. In 1975, Creek artist Fred Beaver commented on this when he said, "This tradition of Indian Art, at least here in Oklahoma, was created by people who trained themselves and didn't have very much influence from European art and knew almost nothing about it."

The Santa Fe Indian School was originally founded to help young Indians learn marketable skills. The advent of art classes there in 1932 furthered this institutional mission. Instructors encouraged students to recall and take pride in their cultural heritage. Pupils were asked to draw inspiration from Native graphic art traditions such as rock art, ledger drawings, and painted pottery designs. The influence of non-Native artistic expression was rigorously discouraged and no technical training in perspective or color was provided.

In both Oklahoma and New Mexico, romantically inclined educators and patrons encouraged Indian artists to find and preserve the primitive, the unspoiled, and the untaught. By mid-century, however, some artists were pushing the boundaries of their subject matter and mediums. In 1955, W. Richard West (Cheyenne) said that "the Indian artist must be allowed to absorb influences outside of his own art forms and develop them in his own manner."

Many artists agreed with West and they sought not be known as Indian artists, but rather as artists who were Indian. They preferred to express their thoughts, feelings, and experiences using any and all methods and mediums available to them.

Three years later, Oscar Howe (Lakota) wrote, "There is much more to Indian Art, than pretty, stylized pictures . . . Are we to be held back forever with one phase of Indian painting, with no right for individualism, dictated to as the Indian always has been, put on reservations and treated like a child, and only the White Man knows what is best for him?"

In his 1971 Indian Painters and White Patrons, J.J. Brody observed that before the 1960s, Indian artists had little opportunity to create personal, expressive, and socially meaningful art. Several factors encouraged an eventual change. Many conservative proponents of Indian painting finally recognized that the art had become sterile. The civil rights movement gave rise to a generation of politically active Indian young people who found social commentary to be a necessary expression. Most importantly, the Institute of American Indian Arts (founded 1962) taught that the form and content of Indian art could embrace the ideas and techniques in use in the mainstream art community.

At that time, Brody also wrote, "Easel painting was a White art medium; it was given to the Indians, and the result for fifty years was meek acceptance. Now the Indians have taken it . . . The taking has resulted in a vital, expressive, sometimes un-pretty, sometimes polemical, and always stylistically varied art. The forms may be quite un-Indian but they merely reflect radical changes in the purpose of Indian art."

The exhibit opened October 21, 2006, and remains on display through March 25, 2007.


(above: T.C. Cannon, His Hair Flows Like a River, Woodcut. 22" x 17 1/4", 1978)

Also on exhibit:

"Reflections After Lewis and Clark: Contemporary Native American Art" is a national traveling exhibit that was organized by the Montana Museum of Art & Culture at the University of Montana in Missoula. The exhibit serves as a forum for American Indian artists to respond to both the impact of Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery on Native cultures and the 2003-2006 Lewis & Clark Bicentennial commemoration.

In the "Foreword" to the exhibition catalog, curator Manuela Well-Off-Man says, "No interpretation or presentation of the Lewis and Clark Expedition can be made without acknowledging the enormous contributions Native Americans made toward the success of the expedition." She continues by stating that the purpose of the exhibit is to acknowledge "the importance of the contributions made by Native peoples and to help the public understand the consequences that the Expedition had for Native Americans, non-Indians, the land and the environment."

Exhibit participants were each given a year to reflect upon the meaning of the expedition and how it had affected the development and culture of their region. They then submitted works that explored these topics. "Reflections After Lewis and Clark" includes the work of 19 artists from 17 different tribal groups in the both the United States and Canada. Among these are Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (Flathead Salish), Jane Ash Poitras (Chippewayan Cree), Joane Cardinal-Schubert (Blood/Peigan), and Lillian Pitt (Wasco/Warm Springs/Yakama).

"Reflections After Lewis and Clark: Contemporary Native American Art" will be on view in the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum's Robert S. and Grayce B. Kerr Changing Exhibition Gallery between October 13 and December 17, 2006.


(above: Lillian Pitt, Honoring our Ancestors (Salmon Drying Rack), Mixed media installation (copper, wood, string, ceramics, bone) , 2004, Ca. 28" x 25" x 12")


(above: Robert Oduño, Quanah Parker, Oil on linen, (25 giclee prints), 2003, 30" x 30")


(above: Joane Cardinal Schubert, Dreaming of Ghost Shirts, Painting acrylic on canvas, 1997, 60 1/4"x 48")


(above: Jeneese Hilton, Hooters and polluters, Mixed media on canvas, 2004, 71" x 39")


Editor's note: Also see Native American Art in Topics in American Representational Art.

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