WEAVING PAST INTO PRESENT
Experiments in Contemporary Native American Printmaking
INTERNATIONAL PRINT CENTER NEW YORK
SEPTEMBER 24 – NOVEMBER 10, 2015
Printmaking has a long and important history in modern Native American art. From the Inuit print studios of Cape Dorset to the Woodland School’s Triple K Co-op, printmaking was a means for mid-century Native artists to enter the world of fine art, rather than be relegated to the material culture or souvenir art which anthropology museums viewed as “authentic” cultural production. Moreover, printmaking was a means of controlling both self-expression and commercial operations, as prints introduced a wide audience to modern Native art forms and became a primary source of income. The printing press was a place to express one’s culture and heritage while dispelling the notion that Native art was anything but modern.
This process continues in a contemporary fashion at the International Print Center’s show Weaving Past into Present: Experiments in Contemporary Native American Printmaking. Organized by Sarah Diver, the exhibition presents the work of indigenous printmakers who, it claims, “utilize 19th-century history as a visual language,” a history which, when engaged with contemporary print practices, becomes an alternative and more complex means of expressing “Nativeness” today. Diver asserts that Native American artists are particularly capable of using print to identify and critique particular moments of history. Rather than becoming a cliché reducible to the keywords “Native American” and “Print,” the exhibition demonstrates that the medium of print not only helps investigate colonialism and Native American experience but also avoids the tokenization of identity-based group shows.
The use of “19th-century history” in the exhibition text depoliticizes and distances the history of colonialism in the Americas. Yet the implicit message of much of the art on display is that this history continues in the present. Colonialism’s legacy is ongoing, and while many of the artists engage 19th-century history explicitly, they do not look backwards but rather incorporate and live with a history that continues cyclically forward. History is a mine, a source of heritage, and the artists in the exhibition make such returns to history to recover and renew. They are also the only ones who seem willing to show that history today.
Boston-based Lynne Allen (Hunkpapa Lakota) exemplifies the show’s goal of making this history visible by drawing on personal family histories and photos. My Grandmother was an Indian. Can you tell? (2003) is a lithograph which asks the titular question in cursive and red ink on ledger paper above an image of the artist’s grandmother wearing a Lakota hide dress. The work contrasts the “Nativeness” of the grandmother’s dress with a high-heeled shoe covered in Plains imagery. They were as numerous as Grass (2002 – 04) refers to the slaughter of the buffalo which devastated Plains peoples while the lithographed buffalo, teepees, and mounted cowboys resonate with the visual history of Plains painting and ledger drawing.
Diver, the show’s curator in all but name, intended viewers to see that Native American artists are not working in binaries of traditional versus non-traditional. Such a distinction falls apart as these artists critically engage a complex relationship with history that informs their work and heritage. Allen’s sculptural works complicate that binary by drawing on 19th-century material forms and altering them. Knife Sheath (2006) etches a handwritten 19th-century land document onto a sheath made of paper, porcupine quills, wire, and rusted bottle caps. As reproducible prints, these sculptures challenge the fetishization of Native American material culture, which is still visible in the salvage collections of natural history museums. The arrangement of Allen’s sculptures in a glass vitrine powerfully references those anthropological trophy cases.
The sculptural print work by Alan Michelson (Mohawk) similarly signals the displays of anthropology museums, while also cleverly incorporating documentary material. Taken from his Prophetstown series first displayed at the 2012 Sydney Biennale, three of Michelson’s paper model sculptures of log cabins appropriate the diorama, long used by museums to represent timeless Native peoples. Based on both real and fictional houses, the models are covered in printed facsimiles of maps and the treaty proclamations that led to massive indigenous deterritorialization. Michelson is interested in how colonial place has been superimposed on Native territories past and present and how it is mostly unremembered or misremembered because of the violence involved. He deploys documentary material, in this case architecture, texts, and maps, to challenge and counter what he sees as amnesia. “Documents have their own aesthetics,” he says, “which I like to exploit.”
The encounter and recovery from this amnesia can be psychologically piercing. Jewel Shaw (Cree/Métis) is a First Nations artist who takes up personal symbols of “containment, memory, and loss.” In her lithograph Truth/Silence (2013), a screaming leather mask and a brand in the form of a crucifix float against a colorless dripping background. It recalls the violence done to Native children by the frequently church-run Residential Schools, which oppressed and silenced indigenous language and culture and which was recently confronted in Canada by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. John Hitchcock’s (Kiowa/Comanche) Storms of War (2015), by contrast, makes a colorful atmosphere out of bombs and piles of buffalo skulls, referencing, like Allen, the U.S. military’s campaign to exterminate the buffalo.
Print, by virtue of its reproducibility, can also promote a kind of Nativeness that expands beyond geography, transgressing essentialized notions of place. Jason Lujan (Chiricahua Apache) seeks an artistic context outside of identity and avoids relying on tropes of visual Nativeness while using found forms to investigate an indigenous presence and narrative within a global context. His American Indian Community Kirin (2014) combines Zuni patterns and Arabic text in a Japanese beer label, inserting an indigenous presence that does not overwhelm the work. He notes that he is “wary of collective exhibitions where ethnicity or background is the primary driving force, but for the IPCNY the main glue is printmaking.” Indeed Lujan is one of the artists in the exhibition who excels at the medium of print. His Comanche Kiowa (2014) serigraphs depict images of Japanese toy models of two military helicopters, named after Native American tribes. The prints’ picture-word combination reflects Lujan’s interest in the realm of mass media, often seen as antithetical to object-orientated Native Art, and allows the viewer to reflect on the global reach of Native culture. The Comanche Kiowa prints are placed directly across the room from Hitchcock’s works, the prints’ critique of appropriation made personal by the presence of the Kiowa/Comanche artist.
While Lujan opens up Native histories to mass media and global culture, print is not effective for every artist. Marie K. Watt (Seneca) is widely known for her stacked towers of blankets, an ambivalent symbol of colonial exchange, wealth, and disease. Her etching Witness (Quamichan Potlach, 1913) (2014) is copied from a 1913 photograph which captured the titular scene of a First Nations potlatch and focuses on a blanket flying through the air. Her 2015 work Witness, not in the show, depicts the same scene but embroidered on a reclaimed Hudson’s Bay Company blanket, a standard potlatch commodity. The materiality of the embroidered blanket emphasizes it as an actor in the depicted exchange, an effect the print version fails to achieve. Likewise, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (Flathead/Salish) is represented by a number of prints depicting Plains war shirts juxtaposed with mocking French and Spanish text. The prints are not as bitingly critical as her well-known assemblages of paint, photograph, and found objects, which challenge the historical and contemporary representation of Native Americans on an unavoidably large scale.
Any exhibition announcing itself as a Native American art show threatens to fall into the trap of identity taking precedence over art. While many of these artists desire to avoid tokenism, they also seek to harness the strength of shared experience and history to escape the ghettoization of Native art in New York. This tension is resolved by the emphasis on diversity, the individual over the group, and the revelation that printmaking allows similar gestures to be made by artists who happen to be Native. It is a critical foray into the Chelsea art world, one rarely attentive to the politics and lived history of work that challenges expectations of a visible Nativeness and avoids stereotyping itself. There is no looking back here, only the forward roll of the printing press.
CHRISTOPHER GREEN is a writer based in New York and a Ph.D. candidate in Art History at the CUNY Graduate Center.