On October 23, 2010, a permanent exhibition of Native artwork from throughout North, Central, and South America opened at the George Gustav Heye Center of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in New York City. Organized into 10 geographic regions, "Infinity of Nations: Art and History in the Collections of the National Museum of the American Indian," features 700 artifacts—including ceremonial items, pottery, jewelry, and clothing selected from the museum's collection of roughly 800,000 objects—that highlight the richness, artistry, and history of Native Americans from Antiquity to the present. The name of the exhibit originates from a phrase coined by 17th century French missionaries who described Native America as an "infinity of nations."
The assumption that art from Native American cultures is limited to categories like Kachina figures or beadwork is a mistaken one. Although traditional arts continue to be a vital, ongoing part of the culture (and are avidly being collected), there are countless Native artists creating vibrant contemporary art in media such as painting, sculpture, installation, photography, video, and performance art. Their styles run the gamut from abstract to conceptual, pop art to cartoon-based, and hyperrealist to neo-Expressionist.
The influence on an artist by his or her nation or culture area may not coincide with viewer expectations. Native artists have a variety of outlooks on the relationship between their ethnicity and their profession. Some see themselves and their work as dedicated to the preservation of their culture through its artistic traditions—although what is "traditional" may have a wide range of definitions. On the other hand, contemporary artists may not identify themselves as "Native artists," because of the risk of being categorized or stereotyped, or the desire to merely be seen as an artist without reference to ethnic identity. Still others take a position somewhere between the two.
One of the major turning points in the course of Native art came in 1932, when the Santa Fe Indian School established an institution known as "the Studio School," directed by Dorothy Dunn. It was a great step forward as the first dedicated program of formal art training for Native Americans; however, it failed miserably at encouraging individualism and experimentation.
Perhaps the exhibition of that era that had the greatest impact was "Indian Art of the United States" at MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) in 1941. It contributed greatly toward shifting Native art from the status of artifact or craft to that of fine art, but was nevertheless tainted by an air of condescension that limited its effect.
Another watershed exhibition, the now famous "Decade Show," was presented in New York City in 1990. Held at three prominent institutions (the New Museum, the Studio Museum of Harlem, and the Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art), the show included artists from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, and it firmly cemented multiculturalism as a part of the larger art world. Native performance artist James Luna presented an impressive work in that show that launched his career as a contemporary artist. Nevertheless—as noted in a piercing essay on Native American art by distinguished critic Amei Wallach—what that exhibition accomplished for "African American and Latino American artists has not, for the most part, happened for Native Americans"; in other words, indigenous artists generally continued to be marginalized.
A few Native artists have become internationally known and respected in the larger, contemporary art world, including Rebecca Belmore, Thomas Joshua Cooper, Jimmie Durham, Brian Jungen, and Brad Kahlhamer. Most of them are represented by galleries of major art world stature, and others, such as Frank BigBear and Truman Lowe, have been written about in leading mainstream periodicals. In 2007, Art News, a major cultural magazine, ran a lively article on the current indigenous art scene, while an important non-Native space, the Aldrich Museum in Connecticut, exhibited contemporary work based on Native American culture (with half the participants being Native). Many observers feel that now is the moment when general audiences are starting to connect with art made by indigenous individuals.
Excerpted from the feature story "Infinity of Nations Exhibit" by Deborah Everett on The American Mosaic: The American Indian Experience.
ABC-CLIO, 2010. Web. 23 Nov. 2010.