The stereotype that Native American art consists of items dripping with beads and feathers and is stuck in the past is being challenged in Denver. The new exhibit Cross Currents showcases the continuous evolution of work created by contemporary Native American artists. “The work that I wanted to see that described my experience in my life wasn’t being made,” said Frank Buffalo Hyde. Cross Currents, currently on display at the Metropolitan State University Center For Visual Art, and includes paintings, sculptures, photography, video installations, and drawings. There are nine total artists on display in the exhibit, including Hyde.
“I sort of subconsciously then consciously decided to make that work that was speaking about contemporary Native existence and experience and life at the beginning of the 21st century,” said Hyde It’s a time, he said, of “complex issues and existing not just in two worlds anymore, but many worlds.”
Hyde, who is of the Onondaga Nation, Beaver Clan, uses representational likenesses, bold colors, visible brush strokes, and sometimes includes text in his paintings. It’s a reaction to the cultural appropriation of Native Americans, something Hyde’s artistic statement calls the “red-faced racism that is effortlessly marketed to the masses.”
Cecily Cullen, creative director and curator at the Center for Visual Art, said these artists remind society Native American culture continues to grow and change.
“We all have a heritage, we all have ancestry, and we all have experienced someone having a preconceived notion about who we are,” said Cullen. “And so we can understand where that is coming from.”
Ironically, artist Merritt Johnson says some of the ways the exhibit corrects preconceived notions about Native American art is through the use of traditional materials – such as beads and feathers. But here they are used in non-traditional way.
“What I think is the biggest disconnect is that the work doesn’t fit neatly into a box of what people think about when they think about, you know, contemporary native art,” said artist Merritt Johnson.
At first glance, her sculpturesque, shrouded figures appear to have a Middle Eastern influence, but Johnson, whose indigenous heritage is Mohawk and Blackfoot, explained the work is meant to raise questions about fear – fear of culture, difference and the unknown.
“I am interested in making work that can speak to something broader,” Johnson explained.
Artist Cannupa Hanska’s 8 ½-foot high disemboweled elk is equal parts jarring and arresting. Its red and pink gnarled organs – created of knitted and croqueted yarn – spill onto a platform. The piece, titled “(NO)stalgia,” satirizes the artificial wistfulness ubiquitous on social media platforms like Instagram, where a picture taken and uploaded within seconds can be made to look decades old.
“There’s no button here to press ‘like’ you know,” said Hanska while standing next to the piece in the gallery. “There’s no comment page that you can make your 15 minute judgment you know. It is. And that is all. And I think that’s where art exists now is in this, in a physical world that is overrun with digital influence. The object remains."
The stereotypes these artists have been subjected to and worked against have at times been a source of anger and frustration. Hanska, of Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara descent, took issue with the phrase contemporary Native American.
“To me it is just another label for someone to use, you know?,” said Hanska. “I am here now, so I am contemporary. I am Native American. And I am an artist. I don’t want it to be anymore loaded than that. It’s a description.”
Frank Buffalo Hyde also refuses to accept prevailing interpretations of what it means to be indigenous. Something he hopes this type of art can help to counter act.
“I think part of the problem is being educated that there are natives here and we’re still here and we’re still, you know, we are a part of this society as well as our own,” said Hyde. “Ignorance, basically I think that’s the main thing.”
By Carrie Saldo
Arts District is a collaboration of KUNC, RMPBS, and KUVO.