In Other Words

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - — Casey Sanchez

Art in Mo­tion: Na­tive Amer­i­can Ex­plo­rations of Time, Place, and Thought, edited by John P. Lukavic and Laura Caruso

Art in Mo­tion: Na­tive Amer­i­can Ex­plo­rations of Time, Place, and Thought, edited by John P. Lukavic and Laura Caruso, Den­ver Art Mu­seum, 108 pages

Ear­lier this year, the Den­ver Art Mu­seum hosted Why We Dance: Amer­i­can In­dian Art in Mo­tion, a mul­ti­sen­sory ex­hibit of video, paint­ing, and pow­wow dancing. But the show as­pired to more than a vis­ual cat­a­log of Amer­i­can In­dian dance. Through the lens of move­ment it­self, the show’s cu­ra­tors sought to re­veal the in­ge­nu­ity of Na­tive artists in cap­tur­ing hu­man lo­co­mo­tion, and ex­plore the ways in which tribal peo­ple move through time and space. The in­no­va­tive show had its ori­gins in Art in Mo­tion: Na­tive Amer­i­can Ex­plo­rations of Time, Place, and Thought, a 2012 mu­seum-hosted sym­po­sium that gath­ered Na­tive artists and schol­ars of in­dige­nous art to think pub­licly about the role of mo­tion and the pas­sage of time in Na­tive Amer­i­can art.

The con­cept is more con­crete than you might ex­pect. Think North­west Coast tribal masks that change ex­pres­sion as their wear­ers dance about. Con­sider the tem­po­ral ways of Navajo sand paint­ings — cre­ated, used for one spe­cific heal­ing, and then de­stroyed, of­ten within the course of a sin­gle day. Or sim­ply look at Lakota an­i­mal ef­figy sticks, sta­tion­ary ob­jects that fix the powerful lunges and jumps of horses in time.

It took the mu­seum more than four years to release the sym­po­sium’s ac­com­pa­ny­ing book — “Pub­li­ca­tions fol­low­ing sym­posia are notorious for com­ing out sev­eral years af­ter the event,” writes the event’s or­ga­nizer and book’s co-editor John P. Lukavic. But as the as­so­ci­ate cu­ra­tor of Na­tive arts notes, both the panel and the ex­hibit had their ori­gins in a fe­male pow­wow doll cre­ated by Lakota artist Char­lene Holy Bear. “I was struck by the way it de­picted mo­tion, even though it does not move,” Lukavic writes in the in­tro­duc­tion. Holy Bear’s use of sinew, por­cu­pine quills, and fine hand-bead­ing on the doll’s clothes would im­press any tra­di­tion­al­ist. But her at­ten­tion to dancers’ out­fits with in­ter­tribal de­signs, ren­dered in bright, me­tal­lic hues that flash un­der arena lights, show­case an artist finely at­tuned to a younger gen­er­a­tion that Snapchats their pow­wow per­for­mances and uses a pop-cul­ture pal­ette to color their jin­gle dresses.

“I em­body a tra­di­tional and con­tem­po­rary Lakota woman, here and now,” Holy Bear writes in a chap­ter ti­tled “Dancing Figures: Lakota Tra­di­tions and In­no­va­tions.” She is one of four con­tem­po­rary in­dige­nous artists who con­trib­uted an es­say to Art in

Mo­tion, dis­cussing how they in­cor­po­rate mo­tion into their work.

A can­did piece by provoca­tive Cana­dian Cree artist Kent Mock­man un­packs the his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ences at play in his satiric, sex­u­ally sub­ver­sive ren­der­ings of fa­mous 19th-cen­tury paint­ings of Amer­i­can In­di­ans by ad­her­ents of the Hud­son River School. Monkman takes as an ex­am­ple Ge­orge Catlin (1796-1872), an Amer­i­can painter who made stoic por­traits of Plains In­dian chiefs and scorned the “cor­rup­tion” of In­di­ans who dared to wear suits and jeans — while, as Monkman wryly notes, al­low­ing him­self to cul­tur­ally cross-dress in buck­skin.

In jour­nals de­tail­ing his vis­its among the Man­dan peo­ple in the Dako­tas, Catlin makes ref­er­ences to “faint hearts,” a tribal term for the beau­ti­ful young men who hunt squir­rels and rab­bits for their pelts, us­ing them to fash­ion flam­boy­ant out­fits. Sev­eral of the faint hearts wanted to be painted as much as Catlin wanted to paint them. But he had made it no fur­ther than chalk sketches be­fore tribal lead­ers made him erase the draw­ings — por­trai­ture was a priv­i­lege re­stricted to an in­ner circle of war­riors and rulers.

Monkman re­sponded to that story with a paint­ing that has Catlin at his easel, en plein air, paint­ing a vast canyon de­void of hu­man pres­ence. But right in front of Catlin’s easel sit sev­eral faint hearts, posed ner­vously with their para­sols, their top hats, their thigh-high boots, and their re­veal­ing cloth­ing. They are as fabulous as they are for­gotten. “The erased sketch, and the count­less other beau­ti­ful ‘faint hearts’ who ex­ist only as col­or­ful de­scrip­tions in his diaries, stand for me as metaphors of count­less erased his­to­ries in na­tive North Amer­ica,” Monkman writes.

An­other es­say by cul­tural an­thro­pol­o­gist Daniel C. Swan con­sid­ers the com­mer­cial trade in pey­ote arts — the craft­ing of rit­ual ob­jects used to con­duct cer­e­monies in the Na­tive Amer­i­can Church — as mu­se­ums have moved to ac­quire these items for their col­lec­tions. It’s an art move­ment driven by both mar­ket needs and a re­li­gious re­vival that has re­newed an in­ter­est, par­tic­u­larly among young Nava­jos, in the tra­di­tional spir­i­tual iconog­ra­phy of the tribe. It’s a mi­gra­tion through tra­di­tional, com­mer­cial, and in­sti­tu­tional worlds to which many Na­tive Amer­i­can artists have come ac­cus­tomed.

“The move­ment from tra­di­tional art to what is con­sid­ered con­tem­po­rary art is it­self a cir­cu­lar mo­tion through time,” con­cludes doll­maker Holy Bear in her es­say. “In other words, what is tra­di­tional was ac­tu­ally con­tem­po­rary at one time.”

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