Important art history was made with the exhibition Hearts of Our People : Native Women Artists. This exhibit, the first major museum exhibition exploring the achievements of Native women artists, debuted at the Minneapolis Institute of Art on June 19. 2019. It then traveled to the Frist Museum in Nashville (September 27, 2019–January 12, 2020), the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. (February 21–August 2, 2020), and the Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa (October 7, 2020–January 3, 2021). to Nashville, to Washington, D.C. and finally Tulsa, OK
The show drew rave reviews and critical attention far outside the local media and art press. When searching for the exhibition title on Google, one of the first results to appear is a commentary from Vogue.
“I’m humbled, we are all humbled by it, but in some ways, I’m not surprised,” exhibition co-organizer and associate curator of Native American Art at Minneapolis Institute of Art Jill Ahlberg Yohe told me about the tremendous attention garnered by the exhibit. “I knew in my heart of hearts, and all of our advisory board members, they knew in their heart of hearts, the importance of this.”
History making identification
Ahlberg Yohe hatched the idea for Hearts of Our People in 2013 along with artist, independent curator and member of the Kiowa Nation Terri Greeves. What they knew, what Native Americans and Native artists knew, but the broader public did not realize was that the majority of Native art was, and is, made by women.
The baskets, the rugs, the pottery, the beadwork, the quillwork, the leather work. Women.
Yet, when these artworks go on display in museums, they are most often attributed only generally to a specific tribe, the individual artist listed as “anonymous.”
You’ve heard the snarky, long-standing art world expression, “’anonymous’ was a woman.” Anonymous was a Native woman.
More than simply spotlighting artwork produced by Native women, Hearts of Our People takes the unprecedented step of putting a Native woman artist’s name with every piece possible. That’s never been done before.
The contemporary works on view, in particular, highlight the intentionality of each individual artist demonstrating how the artist has been influenced by preceding generations.
History making curation
During each step of the curatorial process, Ahlberg Yohe and Greeves worked closely with an Exhibition Advisory Board which they established to provide knowledge and insights from a wide range of nations. The panel comprised 21 Native and non-Native scholars from across North America, as well as Native artists, some of whose work is included in the exhibition.
The board first met in November 2015 at Mia for a discussion that set the tone and clarified intentions for the exhibition.
“The thing that I am most proud of is the process,” Ahlberg Yohe said of the exhibit. “The process of adding perspective from 21 of our board members made the difference. The reason for the success of this show is the curatorial process and that’s one that is a little different and one that shows to the world, it can be done, you can do it a different way, and it can be great success.”
The inclusion of a broad spectrum of perspectives when putting the show together has resulted in a fabulously broad spectrum of material on view. More than 115 works, from ancient times to the present, in a variety of media from Mia’s collection and on loan from more than 30 institutions, are featured.
You’ll see sculpture, video and digital arts, photography, textiles, decorative arts, painting and jewelry.
That volume and diversity of work begs return visits.
“The thing that I love so much that I hear over and over again is, ‘this is my third time, this is my fourth time, this is my fifth time,’ or, ‘I spent two hours yesterday and I’m coming back,'” Ahlberg Yohe said. “People are really sitting and really spending time. What we hear a lot from Native and non-Native people is how moving it is. It’s very human and to bring that humanity to art is something that’s really special.”
Beyond impacting visitors, the curators hope “Hearts of Our People” results in a blossoming of scholarship related to Native women artists.
“There’s a hundred dissertations in this exhibition,” Ahlberg Yohe recalls her co-curator remarking. “This is just planting a seed and we can’t wait to see how people do it better in the future.”
You can order the wonderful “Hearts of Our People” exhibition catalog here.