Contemporary Native American art has finally entered the mainstream

All the Native American artists, take a bow. All the Native American art curators, take a bow. All the Native American art historians, collectors and gallery owners, take a bow. Your efforts have been successful. A dream has been achieved.

As of fall 2023, Native American art, for the first time, has fully entered the contemporary art mainstream in America.

This is not an opinion, this is an observation.

Proof comes from the global epicenter of contemporary art, New York, where this fall – the busiest, most important season of art in Manhattan – more prominent presentations of living Indigenous artists than ever before.

A sampling:

Sundaram Tagore Gallery presents an exhibition of paintings, sculpture, photography and an installation by more than twenty contemporary Indigenous artists from diverse tribal affiliations spanning the United States and Canada through October 7. Included are pillars of the genre such as Christi Belcourt (Métis), Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds (Cheyenne and Arapaho Nation), Dan Namingha (Hopi-Tewa), Virgil Ortiz (Cochiti Pueblo), Preston Singletary (Tlingit), Duane Slick (Meskwaki), and Will Wilson (Diné).

Beginning September 19, Fort Gansevoort presents “Looking Out, Looking In,” the first New York solo exhibition by contemporary Inuk artist Shuvinai Ashoona. Born in 1961, she is the youngest generation of a dynasty of celebrated female artists – her grandmother Pitseolak Ashoona, her mother Sorosilutu Ashoona, and her cousin, the late Annie Pootoogook – from whom she learned her craft.

Ashoona works primarily in pen, ink, sometimes on a massive scale with drawings stretching to 8-feet-wide. Much of her art references Inuk mythology and popular culture, which she merges with imagery sourced from her surroundings and her imagination to produce otherworldly compositions that have magnetized international attention.

James Fuentes gallery nods to an episode of “Reservation Dogs,” a TV series about the lives of Native American teenagers in rural Oklahoma, for its “Young Elder” show on view through October 14.

When two self-righteous influencers are invited to a community center for a Native American Reclamation and Decolonization Symposium, one of the speakers refers to himself as a “young elder”—an oxymoron that inspires a communal eye roll from the audience. The gallery’s exhibition of four emerging and mid-career Indigenous artists borrows the scene’s satire inviting the question: what does it mean to express the wisdom of millennia through a contemporary practice?

At Arsenal Contemporary Art, Montreal-based Anishinaabe artist Caroline Monnet receives her first solo exhibition in the U.S through October 21. “Worksite” centers around Monnet’s ongoing exploration of modern home construction materials.

Through family house renovation projects experienced in childhood, Monnet developed a fascination for the transformative process of construction. This familiarity bred an affinity for building materials that only grew over time—the unfinished walls, fiberglass insulation, tar paper, and even the presence of spiders.

Monnet also designed the cover of the recently published book, “An Indigenous Present,” conceived, edited by and with an introduction from her mentor, Jeffrey Gibson. The book showcases more than 60 contemporary artists, photographers, musicians, writers and other creatives taking diverse approaches to Indigenous concepts, forms and mediums.

Unfortunately, New York continues to lead the art world around by the nose and until you’ve made it there, as the song goes, you haven’t made it yet in the eyes of many. Native representation in NYC goes beyond the galleries to the New-York Historical Society presentation of “Kay WalkingStick/Hudson River School,” an exhibition featuring landscape paintings by the renowned, contemporary Cherokee artist Kay WalkingStick in conversation with classic works from New-York Historical’s collection of 19th-century Hudson River School paintings on view October 20, 2023–April 14, 2024.

“This exhibition features a Native artist, it is Native curated, and it’s in New York’s very first museum dedicated to American history,” Wendy Nālani E. Ikemoto (Native Hawaiian), senior curator of American art at New-York Historical Society, told Forbes.com. “I think that makes a statement. It’s a positive statement about the way that American art history is moving.”

Wyld Gallery in Austin, TX deals exclusively in contemporary Native American artwork.
Wyld Gallery in Austin, TX deals exclusively in contemporary Native American artwork.

This, on the heels of the Whitey Museum of American Art’s summer 2023 solo retrospective “Jaune Quick-to-See Smith: Memory Map,” the first such presentation for an Indigenous artist organized by the nation’s premier museum dedicated exclusively to American art, an exhibition I deemed the most significant ever for a Native American artist.

That bit of history sets the table for her upcoming curation of “The Land Carries Our Ancestors: Contemporary Art by Native Americans,” an exhibition at the equally esteemed National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. highlighting artworks by some 50 living Native artists that powerfully visualizes Indigenous knowledge of land/landbase/landscape. Smith becomes the first artist in the NGA’s 100-year history to curate an exhibition there.

And, not to be forgotten, Jeffrey Gibson’s (Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and of Cherokee descent) selection to represent the United States at the 2024 Venice Biennial, the Olympics of contemporary art. Gibson is be the first Indigenous artist so honored to represent the nation in the event’s 129-year history.

And Tony Abeyta (Diné) becoming the first Native American artist to receive a Medal of Arts from the State Department’s Art in Embassies program.

Tony Abeyta
Tony Abetya

When I began writing about art just five years ago, finding exhibitions of Native American art to highlight were few and far between. Those that existed were often surveys and primarily highlighted historic material. Now, there are too many to shows cover them all – solo presentations for contemporary Native artists.

That dramatic transformation, seemingly, occurred in a short span of time. Actually, it took decades to break down the numerous barriers erected in the way of Indigenous artists reaching the mainstream.

If you were one of the people with a sledgehammer in your hand doing that work, take a bow. You’ve broken through. There will be no going back.

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