Enjoy The Smithsonian’s New Exhibit Spotlighting Native Women Artists—From Your Home

“At long, long last, after centuries of erasure, Hearts of Our People celebrates the fiercely loving genius of Indigenous women. Sumptuous, gorgeous, eternal, strange, this art is alive. Be prepared for an encounter with power and joy!”

—Louise Erdrich, author

In a year when many museums and art galleries are featuring exhibits by women artists, there is a corollary question: Why are there not more recognized women artists in museums?

Why are artworks by women—especially native artists who are women—classified as a separate and distinct form? That is, not as art but as craft?

Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists goes right to the core of that question. 

The touring exhibit was created by Native artists, curators and Native art historians—all women—working together on The Minneapolis Institute of Art’s all-female Exhibition Advisory Board. Their power springs from the collaborative process, as they interpret traditional and contemporary forms and techniques fundamental to the art of Native women. 

“One of the most revelatory aspects of the exhibition for visitors is the realization that most Native artwork is made by women—including many of the baskets, ceramics, weavings and regalia held within tribal communities and museum collections,” said Anya Montiel, curator of American and Native American women’s art and craft at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

This richly woven presentation spanning geography, time and medium, is organized in overarching themes—Legacy, Power and Relationships—interconnecting present day textiles, ceramics, sculpture, time-based media and photography as well as examples of 1000 AD Mimbres ceramics, as well as 18th and 19th century objects. 

Each artwork has a story of its own—even as it shares aspects of the broad themes of legacy, relationship and power—and thus offers variations of interpretation over time as well as unity in cultural traditions.

Legacy is the embodiment of the experience of previous generations in the present moment that speaks to the future. 

Enjoy The Smithsonian's New Exhibit Spotlighting Native Women Artists—From Your Home
Cherish Parrish (Ottawa/Pottawatomi) The Next Generation Carriers of Culture, (2018) using black ash and sweet wood weaves the sculptural shape of a pregnant woman in her third trimester. 

Relationships explores the concept of connectivity and reciprocity that exists beyond the human world to include animals, plants, places and living and nonliving elements. 

Enjoy The Smithsonian's New Exhibit Spotlighting Native Women Artists—From Your Home
Christi Belcourt’s (Michif) painting The Wisdom of the Universe (2014)an acrylic on canvas abound with colorful images. 

Power, encompasses works created for diplomacy and influence to empower others and for the empowerment of oneself. 

Enjoy The Smithsonian's New Exhibit Spotlighting Native Women Artists—From Your Home
Joan Hill (Muskogee Creek and Cherokee) Women’s Voices at the Council (1990). 

So why call these works, craft and not art? Juanita Espinosa, a local community organizer, artist, and advocate for Native people and art, sums it up well to say, that women have always been creators, that “art” is  a European idea, there is no word for art in Dakota (or in many non- European cultures) because creating is part of life. 

How to Experience This Exhibit 

While Heart of Our People: Native Women Artists, now at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum is closed for public viewing, the impact of this collection is far from over, as it offers both voice to unknown artists and new insights in to native art. 

The videos of Legacy, Relationships and Power are available here.

An additional feature is the multi-lingual wall text, audio recordings and labels presented in the artist’s Native American or First Nations languages, as well as English, aiming to present the works in the context of each artist’s own culture and voice.

More on how that was created for the exhibit is available here.

Also available online are audioguides featuring artists including Kelly Church (Odawa/ Pottawatomi), Dyani White Hawk (Sicangu Lakota, Brulé), Ramona Sakiestewa (Hopi) and Roxanne Swentzekll (Santa Clara Pueblo). 

The definitive catalog on the collection, Heart of Our People, Native Women Artists, (editors: Jill Ahlberg Yohe and Geri Greeves, University of Washington Press, May 17, 2019) includes essays, personal reflections and poems by the 20 members of the Exhibition Advisory Board as well as images of the artworks.

The coronavirus pandemic and the response by federal, state and local authorities is fast-moving.

During this time, Ms. is keeping a focus on aspects of the crisis—especially as it impacts women and their families—often not reported by mainstream media.

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Sheila Wickouski is an art and culture writer.