Multimedia artist Wendy Red Star’s “The Last Thanks” is a striking image — not only for the vibrant colors but also for its political nature.
In the photograph, Red Star, wearing a traditional elk-teeth dress of the Crow Nation, is seated at the center of a long table. Fake skeletons are seated on either side of her, each donned with headbands similar to those elementary school children craft every November. An inflated caricature of a turkey lurks in the corner. On the table is a bevy of processed foods, a pile of money and boxes of American Spirit.
With both her arms outstretched, it is clear the scene is based on the famous Leonardo da Vinci painting, and successfully forces the viewer to critique colonialism and religion with every examination of the image.
The Portland-based artist’s work has been featured in exhibits at Seattle’s Bumbershoot, Portland Museum, Metropolitan Museum and more across the country. Despite this success, Native art has traditionally been pigeonholed, and contemporary Native art is often left out of the picture in the modern art world.
Local independent curator Miranda Belarde-Lewis is changing that with “The Multi-Faceted World of Native Art.” This series of five lectures will explore Native art by breaking down the historical significance of traditional practices and today’s interpretation and preservation of the four significant Native art forms: weaving, carving and sculpture, jewelry and painting.
Belarde-Lewis challenged herself to stray from the established, limited narrative of Native art by focusing on contemporary work with this lecture series.
“The Frye is a contemporary art museum, and a lot of times when there’s Native art in the major museums, the tendency is for it to focus on historical uses and pieces,” Belarde-Lewis explained.
While there is a market for new pieces crafted to appear aged, she hopes to emphasize modern work and present new ways for people and museums to engage with contemporary Native art.
Belarde-Lewis, the Frye and other artists are pushing for the art community to include contemporary Native art at institutional levels.
“The museums have this legitimizing authority for the public,” Belarde-Lewis explained. “When major museums feature Native work and it’s only historical, that becomes the expectation. The implied information is that these Native communities only make art that looks like this, and that they haven’t been making art since that time.”
Red Star is one of the many contemporary Native artists opening doors and creating new avenues.
Red Star grew up in the Crow Nation of Montana and began unraveling Native American history at Montana State University.
“Most of what’s written about Crow people is outsider’s perspective, and usually it’s a white male’s perspective,” Red Star said. By challenging this with her own Crow perspective, Red Star draws inspiration for her art from home and traditions, channeling these frames of reference in her photographs, collages, prints and beading.
She describes being a contemporary Native artist as sometimes feeling like “a lonely satellite” because of the limited representation in the larger art universe. Red Star uses curating as one way to form community and build networks. She recently curated an eight-person contemporary Native art exhibition at Weber State University.
“I think it’s important that Native art like mine and the artists I’ve been curating in these exhibitions to be seen more broadly,” she said. “When I work with these artists, they’re all very much working with new media and doing highly conceptual work but come from indigenous backgrounds.”
She said that Native artists want to exhibit at the Whitney Biennial (the Whitney Museum’s signature exhibit) and Documenta just like any other contemporary artist, regardless of whether or not their background plays a role in their work.
Here in Seattle, the Frye is doing its part to pull contemporary Native art into the spotlight. Belarde-Lewis presented a similar, more condensed lecture series last year at the museum.
In 2014, the Frye hosted “Your Feast Has Ended,” an exhibit featuring work by Native artist Nicholas Galanin.
“Seattle is one of the few places in the country where the Native presence has not been completely eradicated,” said Negarra A. Kudumu, the museum’s educator and curator of public programs.
People are living, working and carrying on traditions in the Pacific Northwest, including contemporary artists who deserve attention, she said. The Frye is in a good position to continue to display and discuss this art.
“It goes against the standard narrative that suggests [Native] art is an antiquated thing that only existed in the past but no longer exists now,” Kudumu said. “I wanted to do my part to contribute to a contemporary conversation about an art that shows connections with the past but also clearly indicates these cultures are alive and well and are continually being adapted.”
While exhibits and events involving contemporary Native art are happening now more than ever, there are still major hurdles for these artists.
“A lot of things are placed upon me to represent the whole of Native America and there’s no way I would ever want to do that, nor would I ever want to represent the total voice for my own people. That’s something that’s really hard as a Native person,” Red Star explained. “People expect that you should be the voice for everything.”
With more than 500 tribes and 3 million Native Americans living in the United States, Native art is complex and different, but ultimately serves as tangible connection to each Indigenous community, said Belarde-Lewis.
“I think that’s one of the strongest aspects of Native art is that it allows us to express our unique identity as tribal people in whatever time we are in. Our ancestors did it using the methods and mediums available at the time,” explained Belarde-Lewis. “Now that we have digital, plastic, glass and trash, we just make do with what we have to create the same type of things. It’s just that the mediums have changed.”
You can learn more about the Frye’s “The Multi-Faceted World of Native Art” lecture series, which will run at the Frye through spring and summer, at bit.ly/fryenativeart.