Indigenous Arts and Culture

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Feature image: Maria (2014), Rose B. Simpson, Santa Clara Pueblo, 1985 Chevy El Camino

Installation Highlight: Indigenous Arts and Culture

Curated by Nancy Strickland Fields, “To Take Shape and Meaning: Form and Design in Contemporary American Indian Art” features the works of 75 indigenous artists at the North Carolina Museum of Art. The exhibit emphasizes the resilience of Indigenous peoples by fusing mediums and techniques spanning hundreds of years to advocate for cultural visibility and understanding, further elevating Indigenous art’s evolution.

The exhibition “To Take Shape and Meaning: Form and Design in Contemporary American Indian Art” highlights the work of 75 Indigenous artists from over 50 different tribes in the United States and Canada. It is showing until July 28, 2024. “To Take Shape and Meaning” strengthens the role of artists, curators, and museums alike in elevating the perspectives of Indigenous cultures in the United States. It illuminates the lens of native peoples in the US and Canada to provide people with the space to investigate the culture and history that is still overlooked and ignored even to this day. It celebrates their culture’s resistance and resilience just as much as these outstanding artists’ skills and vision. The curation enhances the visibility and understanding of Native American art and culture.

Kenneth Johnson (Muscogee_Seminole) Sun Spider Cuff, 2023, palladium, 24K gold, and sapphire, H. 2 1_2 x W. 2 1_2 x D. 3 in., Courtesy of the artist_ Photo_ Wendy McEahern Photography
Kenneth Johnson (Muscogee_Seminole) Sun Spider Cuff, 2023, palladium, 24K gold, and sapphire. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Wendy McEahern Photography.

Curator Nancy Strickland Fields is a member of the Lumbee Tribe and is also the curator of the Museum of the Southeast American Indian at the University of North Carolina at Penbrooke. She has nearly two decades of experience in museum education, working in spaces like the Museum of Contemporary Native Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is pursuing a doctorate in Public History at NC State University with a research focus on Southeastern Native peoples and the American Colonial experience.

Cultural Significance, Resistance, and Resilience

While the exhibit focuses on the multifacetedness of Indigenous art, it also presents itself as an opportunity for cultural communication and the importance of language when approaching these artworks. It opens and closes the show with information on the correct terminology for addressing Indigenous peoples and their tribal affiliations. It also provided historical context for the variations in addressing native tribes and Indigenous nations. The Indian Removal Act of 1830, which divided tribes across the United States, led to many variations. This is where we get specific designations, such as the Southern Cheyenne. 

These vibrant colors and meticulous beadworks show more than a culture of passion and community. They represent a culture of resistance and resilience, no longer allowing the world to ignore their voices and culture. Before I even booked my tickets, I was excited to see what new and captivating exhibits the North Carolina Museum of Art was hosting. Gibson is a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and is half-Cherokee.

Jeffery Gibson (Mississippi Choctaw), I Put a Spell on You, 2015, repurposed punching bag, glass beads, artificial sinew, and steel, H. 40 x W. 14 x D. 14 in., Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University, Museum Purchase (c) Jeffery Gibson, Photo
Jeffery Gibson (Mississippi Choctaw), I Put a Spell on You, 2015, repurposed punching bag, glass beads, artificial sinew, and steel, H. 40 x W. 14 x D. 14 in., Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University, Museum Purchase (c) Jeffery Gibson

I was especially looking forward to seeing Jeffery Gibson’s meticulously inspirational art on display just before Art Basel kicked off in Switzerland, only to realize his work was selected to represent the United States at the Venice Biennal. The Venice Biennal is an annual cultural exhibition and art fair highlighting what might be exhibited in other European art fair season fairs. Venice and the Biennal Foundation typically show much of what they bring to Art Basel Switzerland at their annual festival.

One of his beaded punching bags, “I Put a Spell on You” (2015), was on display. The work exemplifies meticulous beadwork. It draws from a fusion of regalia from Native powwows, pop culture, and personal experiences. It represents overcoming challenges and hardships and learning to fight back not with our fists but with words, resilience being the most powerful offense and defense in the wake of turmoil. 

“We came from a place of surviving in our need to weave a place of thriving and wanting to weave as a practice and living”

Kelly Church

Virgil Ortiz (Cochiti Pueblo), Convergence, Defenders Descend from Portal to Pueblo, 2023, Cochiti red
Virgil Ortiz (Cochiti Pueblo), Convergence, Defenders Descend from Portal to Pueblo, 2023, Cochiti red

The exhibition highlights these Indigenous artists’ complex creativity and keeps their messages front and center. It elevates the depth of Indigenous cultures across the United States by placing the continuation of tradition at the center stage. This mission to keep traditional techniques alive is especially true for Joanna Underwood’s work, which draws inspiration from studying the ancient designs and practices of early Southeastern Indigenous nations. Joanna Underwood, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, also displays her work in spaces like the National Museum of the American Indian and the Ambassador of the Chickasaw Nation’s office. Underwood’s work elevates the experiences of Indigenous women in the Southeast, who did most of the water-bearing and pottery making. The women of the Chickasaw people held matrilineal roles that focused on the sustainability of their families and community. The Loksi (turtle) on the front of the water jar represents wisdom and strength.

“For thousands of years, Native artists have manipulated their materials into fantastic expressions of art. The contemporary artists featured in the show are among the most acclaimed in their genres. They are credited with pushing their art forms in ways that retain meaning and continue to evolve culture.”

Nancy Strickland Fields said to the North Carolina Museum of Art.

While the exhibit closes on July 28, I look forward to seeing the rest of the events they have to offer surrounding this exhibit. “To Take Shape and Meaning” celebrates the Indigenous arts while elevating the excellence of North Carolina’s deep-rooted history with Indigenous culture. While the exhibit serves as a testament to the steadfast strength and resilience of Indigenous peoples and their culture, their impact spans beyond borders. Many of these works have been worldwide, and millions are immersed in these artists’ messages. Some works here might travel to Europe when NCMA’s exhibit closes in July. Throughout the next couple of months, there will be dance and regalia showcases, curator meetings, and art markets to continue supporting.


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