Essential Aesthetics: An Exploration of Contemporary Indigenous Art and Identity

IARC Seminar

November 16–20, 2009

IARC Seminar: Essential AestheticsIARC Seminar: Essential AestheticsIARC Seminar: Essential Aesthetics IARC Seminar: Essential AestheticsIARC Seminar: Essential AestheticsIARC Seminar: Essential Aesthetics

Since the early 1990s, art production that addresses issues of racial, ethnic, sexual, and class identity have been placed under the rubric of “identity politics.” More recently, however, there have been attempts by artists, curators, and arts institutions to move beyond these concerns by avoiding groupings along these categories.

A significant moment came in 2001, when Thelma Golden curated an exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem titled Freestyle. In the catalogue for the show, Golden described the works featured in the exhibition as expressing “an individual freedom that is a result of this transitional moment in the quest to define ongoing changes in the evolution of African American art and ultimately to an ongoing redefinition of blackness in contemporary culture.” The term that she coined for this new kind of art was “post-black art,” art whose primary concern was not necessarily the issue of race.

A recent example of an exhibition that addresses similar concerns by Native artists is a show titled Re-mix: New Modernities in a Post-Indian World curated by Joe Baker and Gerald McMaster, held at the National Museum of the American Indian and at the Heard Museum from 2007–08. As McMaster explains in his essay for the catalogue: “For many artists today, cultural identity is not a concern. Nevertheless, we hope that the gathering of this group signifies a new articulation of the expanse and inclusiveness of contemporary Native art.”

An analysis of the latter show, especially when we compare the historical and curatorial differences it has with Freestyle, raises many questions that deal with current individual and communal formulations of Native identity. One is the question of timing. Why formulate an exhibition articulating post-Indigeneity now? What conditions allow for this as the ripe moment for this articulation of post-identity? Another is to consider the differences in how identity is formulated within various Native communities. “The significance of place, of land, of landscape, of other things in the universe, in defining the very essence of people, makes for a very different rendering of the term essentialism as used by indigenous peoples.”—Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Māori ScholarFor example, how can claims of post-Indianness be considered from community perspectives that may have an essentialist understanding of identity? In other words, is the easy dismissal of a Native identity—an anti-essentialist move that relies on a formulation of identity as constructed—possible for members whose communities believe in identity as inherent?

Nancy Marie Mithlo has formulated a strong response to a post-Indian approach to curating. In a lecture delivered at the Eiteljorg Museum as part of its 2007 Fellowship Awards program, titled “The New Thing is Old News: Post-Identity Claims, Realism and Radical Restructuring,” Mithlo advocates an approach based on “post-positivist realism,” which “may productively serve as a means to understand the sovereign curatorial strategies employed by many Native curators today who choose to forward collective cultural values.”

IARC Seminar: Essential AestheticsIARC Seminar: Essential AestheticsIARC Seminar: Essential Aesthetics IARC Seminar: Essential AestheticsIARC Seminar: Essential AestheticsIARC Seminar: Essential Aesthetics IARC Seminar: Essential AestheticsIARC Seminar: Essential AestheticsIARC Seminar: Essential Aesthetics Nancy MithloNancy MithloPhotograph by Derek Jennings.Nancy MithloPhotograph by Derek Jennings.

Another example of an approach based on, and highlighting, an Indigenous perspective has been advanced by Linda Tuhiwai Smith, a Māori scholar who has written on the incommensurability of some Western and Native perspectives. She promotes the development of a scholarly practice based on the perspective known as Kaupapa Māori, or a specifically Māori world view. She explains how essentialism may function differently within Native communities: “The significance of place, of land, of landscape, of other things in the universe, in defining the very essence of people, makes for a very different rendering of the term essentialism as used by indigenous peoples.” And here she is describing an essentialism that is not strategically invoked, the kind of partial and provisional essentialism defined by postcolonial scholars, but a kind of essentialism that is often informed by traditional spirituality.

This seminar was a collaboration among the Indian Arts Research Center, The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, and The Institute of American Indian Arts. A portion of the seminar was funded by the Ford Foundation's IllumiNation: Building Capacity for the Future of Native Arts.

Seminar Participants

Mario A. Caro (seminar chair) is an art historian, critic, and curator specializing in the analysis of the production, dissemination, and consumption of contemporary Indigenous arts. Most recently, he was the curator at the Alaska House, New York gallery in New York City. Currently, he is an adjunct professor at the City University of New York and is working on a manuscript titled The Native as Image: Art History, Nationalism, and Decolonizing Aesthetics.

Robert Jahnke is the Head of the School of Maori Studies at Massey University and Coordinator of Maori Visual Arts in Palmerston North in New Zealand. He belongs to the tribal group of Ngati Porou on the East Coast of the North Island. He is an artist and a published academic whose work contextualizes Maori visual culture within contemporary New Zealand society. He was a visiting fellow at ANU in Canberra in 1996 and a visiting Fulbright scholar at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa in 1997/98. In 2002, he received the Te Waka Toi ‘Te Ara Whakarei’ Honorary Te Toi Iho—Māori made mark user endorsement for his contribution to Maori art.

Gerald McMaster is the Curator of Canadian Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Canada. Before arriving in Toronto, Dr. McMaster worked at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian from 2000–2004, as Deputy Assistant Director and then as the Director’s Special Assistant for Mall Exhibitions responsible for all the Museum’s permanent exhibitions. From 1981–2000, Dr. McMaster was Curator at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, in charge of exhibitions, acquisitions, and publications of contemporary Indian art. From 1995–2000 he was made Curator-in-Charge of the First Peoples Hall, in which he was responsible for its full growth. His awards and recognitions include the 2005 National Aboriginal Achievement Award; the 2001 ICOM-Canada Prize for contributions to national and international museology; Canadian Commissioner to the world’s most prestigious exhibitions, the XLVI 1995 Venice Biennale; and recently he was given Canada’s highest honor, Officer of the Order of Canada.

Nancy Marie Mithlo is an Assistant Professor of Art History and American Indian Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She earned her Ph.D. in 1993 from Stanford University writing on Native American identity and arts commerce in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her recent book “Our Indian Princess”: Subverting the Stereotype is published by the School for Advanced Research Press. Mithlo’s extensive relationship with the Institute of American Indian Arts, a pan-tribal college and contemporary arts museum, includes the building of course curriculum for the distance education initiative, Native Eyes. She directs historic American Indian photography research in New Mexico and Oklahoma, including the Horace Poolaw Photography Collection. Mithlo's curatorial work has resulted in five exhibits at the Venice Biennale. She was recently selected as a 2009–2010 Woodrow Wilson Foundation Fellow to support the completion of her second book which documents and theorizes the emergence of an indigenous arts presence at the Venice Biennale from 1999 to 2009.

Nora Naranjo-Morse makes her home on the Santa Clara Pueblo reservation in New Mexico. A Tewa Indian, Naranjo-Morse grew up in a community of Pueblo potters; her mother, Rose Naranjo taught Nora and her six sisters traditional methods of clay work particular to the Northern Pueblos of New Mexico. Nora's father, Michael Naranjo, was a builder and modeled adobe building techniques to all his children. Her sister, Rina Swentzell, is a well known architectural consultant and has built several adobe and straw bale homes. In 1994, Nora helped build her own adobe home and then wrote about the correlation between layering adobe walls and coiling a clay vessel in her book of poetry Mud Woman, which has recently gone into its fourth printing. Creating a home out of adobe was influential in Naranjo-Morse's artistic development; from this experience she began looking at organic materials as a viable resource in her creative expression. Nora's 2007 sculpture installation at the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. entitled, Always Becoming, looked at culture, community and land using raw earth materials and indigenous architecture. A forthcoming one hour documentary on the making of Always Becoming will be released in March of 2010. Nora has two children, Zak and Eliza, with whom she often collaborates on art projects.

Mina Sakai is an Ainu performance artist, drawing on her background in both modern and traditional forms to explore, create, and express Ainu identity. Mina is active in spreading awareness about the Ainu people and culture and sharing her life story through various performances, lectures, workshops, and other forums throughout Japan and abroad. She is a Cultural Advisor registered with the Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture. In 2008, she served as an Executive Council Member for the Indigenous Peoples Summit scheduled in anticipation of the G8 Summit held in Hokkaido. The gathering brought together representatives from 25 different indigenous nations and over 600 participants to discuss indigenous issues and present their voice to the G8. The four-day summit culminated in the Nibutani Declaration calling for the recognition of various indigenous rights, and ended with the Indigenous Peoples Summit Music Festival, in which the Ainu Rebels, a performance group she founded in 2006, were one of the many Ainu and other indigenous artists that performed.

Mario A. Caro, Facilitator Lecturer, College of Staten Island, The City University of New York Locating Native Art: Essentializing Native Aesthetics
Kathleen Ash-Milby Associate Curator, National Museum of the American Indian
Robert Jahnke Professor and Head, School of Maori Studies, Massey University Maori Made
Keevin Lewis Museum Programs Coordinator, National Museum of the American Indian
Gerald McMaster Curator, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Canada Crying for a Vision
Nancy Marie Mithlo Assistant Professor, Art History and American Indian Studies, University of Wisconsin, Madison “The Right Questions”
Nora Naranjo-Morse Artist, Santa Clara Pueblo Becoming—One Step
Mina Sakai Performance Artist, Ainu Learning to Speak: Ainu Art and Identity Now

Follow us: