For much of the 20th century, Native American artists who worked in what are often viewed as traditional formats, such as Navajo weaving or Pueblo pottery, were considered by art historians and anthropologists to be the guardians of authentic culture. It’s a view that sees Native peoples as admirable in terms of being preservers of culture, but is problematic because Native artists have consistently sought to transcend paradigms that relegate artists working outside of tradition as the byproducts of an unchanging past. But art as a means of self-expression need not conform to preestablished norms or styles. For more than half a century, the Institute of American Indian Arts, the Inuit print shops of Cape Dorset, and other institutions have given Native artists a unique standing in the arts, and printmaking in particular was a means of reaching a wide audience. On Friday, Jan. 27, the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts hosts a public reception for several new exhibitions, including a print show organized by New York’s International Print Center called New Impressions: Experiments in Contemporary Native American Printmaking; a exhibition of works by recent MoCNA artists-in-residence titled Now Is the Time: Investigating Native Histories and Visions of the Future; and two commissioned installations, one by Daniel McCoy Jr. called The Ceaseless Quest for Utopia, and the other by Athena LaTocha titled Inside the Forces of Nature.
New impressions: Experiments in Contemporary Native American printmaking
Printmaking has a rich history among Native artists. New Impressions features more than 40 prints by Native artists and was developed along the theme of how past histories — personal and collective — continue to inform the present. Exemplifying this idea is the artwork of Lynne Allen, who delves deep into a family history, particularly her female lineage, tied to that of the Hunkpapha Sioux. “My work has always been about the underdog,” she told Pasatiempo. “It was always about empathy and the strength of human nature, but also the trials that people face, whether it was about prisoners or endangered species. All of it has some connection.”
Allen’s great-grandmother Josephine Waggoner (1871-1943) was one of the first Native Americans to attend the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia, where she learned to read and write. She went back to the reservation after eight years and started interviewing chiefs and other tribal members and writing a history of the Sioux, basing some of her work on the winter counts, histories that capture important events in pictures that were recorded on hides, and oral storytelling traditions. “In the 1920s, she connected herself mainly with the Historical Society in North Dakota,” Allen said. But her great-grandmother’s work was dispersed across the United States in historic collections instead of being credited to her. Stories she wrote were sometimes taken by other writers, who claimed credit, as was the case with Rekindling Camp Fires: The Exploits Of Ben Arnold Connor, Wa-Si-Cu Tam-A-He-Ca, a story told by her great-grandmother that is often still attributed to author L.W. Crawford today. “She was ripped off her whole life,” Allen said.
When Waggoner died, a manuscript of her tribal history passed to Allen’s grandmother, who hoped to publish it but met no success. The manuscript eventually ended up in the possession of a cousin in North Dakota, who tossed it in the back of Allen’s car when Allen was visiting. “I have seen pages and pages of this manuscript since I was a teenager,” she said. “This information was always there, but it didn’t appear to me to be my culture because I didn’t grow up on the reservation.” The manuscript was published in 2013 by the University of Nebraska Press as Witness, A Hunkpapha Historian’s Strong-Heart Song of the Lakotas, for which Allen wrote the foreword. “It took four generations of people to actually get this printed,” she said.
Allen, a former master printer at Tamarind Institute in Albuquerque, utilizes all manner of printmaking techniques in her work and recent prints included in New Impressions, such as Wind Woman and My Grandmother was an Indian. Can you tell? Her work features imagery derived from photographs of her forebears. Using a combination of her own designs, printed materials taken from the original manuscript, and images derived from the winter counts, Allen makes forms out of deer hide, goat skin, and other materials, including found objects like the clasps of Victorian handbags, to create three-dimensional objects such as a fringed bag and a knife sheath. The skins are printed using the techniques of etching and lithography.
In addition to Allen, New Impressions includes prints by Joe Feddersen, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, John Hitchcock, Brad Kahlhamer, Rick Bartow, Jason Lujan, Jewel Shaw, Emmi Whitehorse, Melanie Yazzie, and Marie Watt. “Many of the artists are well known for their printmaking art, like Joe Feddersen or Jaune Quick-to-See Smith,” said museum curator Manuela Well-Off-Man. “But others, like Marie Watt, are alumni of IAIA. We know Watt’s work through her large-scale blanket installations.”
Watt, who created a monumental site-specificinstallation in 2015 for Unsuspected Possibilities, a SITE Santa Fe exhibit, is showing prints that also have a connection to her family history. Some of her copperplate etchings in the show were inspired by her grandfather. “My grandfather was blind,” she said. “One of the skills he learned after becoming blind was how to cane chairs.” Two prints in the exhibition show chair-caning imagery, a nod to her grandfather and also a reference to Pablo Picasso’s 1912 Still Life With Chair Caning. “There’s a lasso figure in one of them that relates to what I like to refer to as the complexity of my West,” she said. “My father is German and Scot, and was raised in a homestead my great-grandparents settled. My mom grew up on the Seneca Reservation in western New York. The lasso, for me, is suggestive of the West and cowboys and things like that, but as a person who hasn’t done roping before, I was doing a lot of image research, and the image I ended up drawing from was the lasso that Wonder Woman used. So there’s this kind of feminist and superhero element to the lasso, as well.”
Two other copperplate etchings by Watt in New Impressions were derived from a historic photograph depicting a potlatch: Witness (Quamichgan Potlatch, 1913), and Transportation Object (Sunset). “I think of the photograph as an image of civil disobedience because at that time potlatches were actually banned in the United States and Canada,” she said. The first print, Witness, shows a blanket being tossed to a crowd, part of the redistribution of wealth that occurs during the potlatch. The image is monochromatic except for the red blanket, which falls freeform to the crowd below, appearing like a waving flag and suggesting, perhaps, a call to arms or action. The second print takes the shape of the blanket and presents it as a negative space within the composition. The reference to transportation in the title and the shape of the blanket itself put one in mind of a magic or flying carpet but its meaning goes deeper. “The term ‘transportation object’ came from doing research at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian,” she said. “There, they characterize their cradleboards as transportation objects.” Cradleboards were a means of transporting infants and small children on one’s back. “I really became enamored of the phrase. Blankets are transportation objects both physically and metaphorically. Art and language can be transportation objects, too. The words relate to the way I think of art and image together. That particular print is a continuation of my meditation on this phrase.”