Contemporary Native American art is Contemporary art. The definition of “contemporary” tells us that. All artwork produced is “contemporary” at the time of its making, regardless of the maker’s ancestry, even if it references or incorporates historic subjects and materials.
I’m not relying on a semantic argument, however, when advocating for contemporary Native American art to be fully integrated into Contemporary art museums and collections, I’m making an aesthetic one. I’m arguing that the work of contemporary artists who happen to be of Indigenous descent has earned placement alongside every other great contemporary artist for the same reason those artists were tapped: their color, their line, their materials, their storytelling, their quality and their talent.
Contemporary Native American art remains ghettoized in the broader Contemporary art world despite this.
I have yet to visit an art museum or gallery – and I’ve been to dozens across the country – that meaningfully incorporates Native American artists into its presentations of Contemporary – or Modern – art, the way it does Black artists or female artists.
At one time, Black and female artists were “special interest” categorizes in Contemporary art. It was appalling in their case at the time and remains appalling in the case of Native American artists today.
Imagine if African American artists were still mostly segregated to their own wing or gallery in museums the way African art or art from Asia or Native American art is. Imagine if Kerry James Marshall and Kehinde Wiley didn’t hang alongside Anselm Kiefer and Cecily Brown in museums, but were separated off on their own categorized primarily as “Black,” not “Contemporary.”
Or if Amy Sherald and Judy Chicago didn’t hang alongside Damien Hirst and David Hockney, but were over in the “female” galleries with Carrie Mae Weems and Cindy Sherman and Tracy Emin and Marilyn Minter and Bisa Butler.
That condition still exists with contemporary Native American art and artists whose work remains “othered,” separated from the purview of Contemporary art. Oftentimes separated into entirely different galleries and museums. The best of the best contemporary Native American art continues to be found at specialized Native American galleries or Western art museums and galleries. Find me the Native American artist with representation at a gallery in Chelsea? Find me an Earl Biss painting in the permanent collection at any one of the American museums considered among the 10 or 12 best.
Indigenous art does have the attention of Contemporary art museums and collectors, but that attention remains walled off from their interest in the broader world of Contemporary art. Compartmentalized. I’m advocating for immersion. Equality.
Surprisingly, a pair of hotels with access to exceptional art achieved what I’m calling for better than any museum or gallery I’ve seen.
The Alfond Inn at Rollins College in Winter Park, FL shares the collection of the Rollins College Art Museum. Just off the main lobby, it has a painting by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith facing a painting by Julie Mehretu, a contemporary American artist of Ethiopian descent who’s had exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art along with major commissions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art among others. Smith should receive the same broad acclaim.
At the 21c Museum Hotel in Cincinnati, a textile piece from Jeffrey Gibson shares space with a Nick Cave Soundsuit. Cave’s Soundsuits are fixtures at Art Museums across the country. Happily, Jeffrey Gibson’s work is becoming that way.
Gibson, along with Cara Romero, Wendy Red Star and Smith are the contemporary Native American artists I see breaking through into the wider Contemporary art world most regularly.
11 Living Native American artists essential to Contemporary art
Tony Abeyta (Diné)
Shonto Begay (Diné)
Starr Hardridge (Muscogee)
Cannupa Hanska Luger (Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota and European)
11 Deceased Native American artists essential to Contemporary art
Earl Biss (Apsáalooke)
R.C. Gorman (Diné)
Shan Goshorn (Eastern Band Cherokee)
Allan Houser (Chiricahua Apache)
Charles Loloma (Hopi)
George Morrison (Ojibwe)Cannupa Hanska LugerCara RomeroEarl BissFritz ScholderHarry FonsecaIndigenous artJaune Quick-to-See SmithJay LaberJeffrey GibsonMarie WattNocona BurgessShonto BegayStarr HardridgeT.C. CannonTony AbeytaWendy Red Star