Survey of Native American art arrives, two decades in the making
Wood sculptures and imagery of tribes at war fill the Fine Arts Gallery in “When I Remember I See Red,” the first historical survey of works by 36 contemporary Native American artists in California from the ‘60s to the present.
“What you have is the regional value in the kinds of things that they’re showing. Issues like the pipeline and sovereignty of land and water are something that affect a whole nation,” said SF State alumnus and contributing artist Frank LePena.
In North Dakota, members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have been protesting the construction of an oil pipeline on the basis that it would endanger the environment as well as hinder sacred land of their ancestors.
The exhibition features works by Spencer Keeton Cunningham, an artist currently in North Dakota protesting with the Sioux Tribe. Cunningham finished and sent the pieces to Mark Johnson, Fine Arts Gallery director and curator, a week before the exhibition premiered; they are part of his collection titled “Works Created During Standing Rock Reservation Protest Sept. 2016.”
“For native people, the more understanding people have the more they can understand issues like the pipeline,” said Native American studies professor Andrew Jovilette. “If they understand the history of colonization, if they see through this art the ways in which native people have been viewed, then the more they’re like ‘we should get rid of that.’”
In 1993, Le Pena and Johnson began discussing what an exhibit of contemporary California Native American art would look like, but did not begin the process of researching and collecting until early last year.
Around the same time, The American Indian Arts and Crafts Act was introduced in 1990 and has helped protect and preserve Native American art, as well as separate them from non-authentic works. The formal recognition of Native American artists by the U.S. government prevented non-Native American artists from profiting off of Native American culture, according to the document.
“For those of us who work in the arts and culture it’s important that we think about whose history we are portraying, and Native American people are often not part of the story,” said Johnson. “I’ve been interested in how we can validate this important art history that has been often overlooked.”
In addition to addressing the pipeline protests, some of the pieces dealt with themes like growing up as a Native American in the U.S., the realities of white colonization, and caring for the environment.
“Kinky Kachinas” by Mooshka depicts Native American kachina dolls wearing western clothing such as Converse sneakers, smoke masks, and even the American flag. Kachina dolls are personifications of ancient spirits in the physical world and act as messengers between the two realms.
Saul Calvillo, a studio art major in Johnson’s class, spent the majority of last semester researching the contributing artists and the history of Native American culture.
“It’s such a rich culture and this exhibition is so important because there hasn’t been anything like this at all, at least on such a big scale,” Calvillo said.
The exhibition is on display Wednesday to Saturday through Oct. 13.