In Other Words
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.”