Influence of performance on contemporary Native American art

The first major exhibition to center performance as an origin point for the development of contemporary art by Native American, First Nations, Inuit, and Alaska Native artists opens June 24, 2023 at the Center for Curatorial Studies’ (CCS Bard) Hessel Museum of Art. Curated by leading scholar and curator Candice Hopkins (Carcross/Tagish First Nation), Indian Theater traces the history of experimentation that emerged from the Institute of American Indian Arts’ Department for New Native Theater in the late 1960s and continues to inform the practice of Native artists today.

The exhibition brings together over 100 works by over 40 artists and collectives, including new commissions and performances by Rebecca Belmore (Anishinaabe), Nicholas Galanin (Tlingit/Unangax̂), Jeffrey Gibson (The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians/Cherokee), Maria Hupfield (Anishnaabek, Wasauksing First Nation / Canada), and Eric-Paul Riege (Diné).

On view through November 26, 2023, Indian Theater is part of a sweep of initiatives at Bard College to place Indigenous Studies at the heart of curricular innovation and development, including the appointment of Hopkins as CCS Bard’s inaugural Fellow in Indigenous Art History and Curatorial Studies.

“This exhibition marks a critical contribution to contextualizing contemporary Indigenous art as part of a larger artistic movement whose history has been understudied and overlooked,” Tom Eccles, Executive Director of the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, and Founding Director of the Hessel Museum of Art, said. “This groundbreaking presentation at the Hessel Museum provides a new framework for the interpretation of Indigenous contemporary art, a field of study that we look forward to continuing to advance with new research and curatorial innovation.”

Taking a broad scope to examining the history of Native contemporary art through the lens of performance, the exhibition engages notions of object and agency, sound and instrumentation, dress and adornment, and the body and its absence.

“This exhibition takes its impetus from a modest, yet significant document: Indian Theatre: An Artistic Experiment in Process, published by the Institute for American Indian Arts (IAIA) in 1969. The treatise was the first to attempt to define ‘New Native’ theater, ushering in a new way of framing the long practice of performance in Indigenous societies across Turtle Island; they were also creating a template for its future,” Hopkins said. “Inspired by this document, the exhibition, Indian Theater is attuned to the intersections between objects, performance—in its expanded forms—film and video, and visual sovereignty in Native North American contemporary art.”

The presentation begins chronologically and cites the 1969 document, Indian Theatre: An Artistic Experiment in Process, published by the IAIA. Featured is early documentation of IAIA theater performances, along with recently digitized footage of Spiderwoman Theater’s evocatively titled 1979 play Cabaret: An Evening of Disgusting Songs and Pukey Images, available for viewing for the first time since its original debut.

The longest running theater group in the United States, Spiderwoman Theater emerged from the feminist movement of the 1970s and the disillusionment with the treatment of women in radical political movements of the time. Cabaret reflects the group’s contribution to the national dialogue on gender in its critique and satirization of how women are often made to swallow male platitudes about love and its challenges to homogenizing images of women.

The exhibition progresses with a survey of film, video, performance, sculpture, painting, drawing, and beadwork that at once pay homage to the legacy of innovative Native aesthetic traditions and this continuing tradition of experimentation and performativity. 

Jeffrey Gibson’s commission responds directly to the 1969 treatise, Indian Theatre, with a new performance, an arced choreography that centers music and oration. 

White Carver, an installation and performance by Nicholas Galanin features a non-Native carver engaged in carving a surprising object, one that might initially seem like a customary item in the vein of Northwest Coast Native American art. Galanin reconceives traditional carving practices, including the ways in which many Native carvers on the Northwest coast publicly perform their craft to a non-Native public, to confront the history of colonial fetishization of Indigenous cultures and objects.

Another performance, commissioned for the exhibition, will feature artist Eric-Paul Riege as he engages with a series of soft sculptures of oversized pairs of Diné earrings. Over his day-long durational performance, his suspended sculptures are activated and sounded, becoming an extension of the artist’s body and Diné cosmology.

Both the Galanin and Riege performances will take place in the galleries during opening weekend (June 24-25, 2023), joined by Rebecca Belmore, who will activate her large-scale commission, Familia, with a seven-hour durational performance, and participate in an artist talk.

Installed on the exterior of the Hessel Museum of Art, Familia is a monumental new work (17 x 30 ft) that will blanket the Museum’s façade. Using worker’s coveralls as raw material, the piece mirrors the dimension of a flag, but instead of symbolizing nationhood or sovereignty, this work questions the colonial impulses behind these gestures and their histories of labor exploitation.

Belmore’s related performance will call attention to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Two-Spirit, and Trans People (MMIWG2ST+)through a collective performance of care that will center objects on the grounds of the Hessel Museum that are often overlooked.

Contemporary Native Artists Exhibition Roster

Also on view are works by artists including KC Adams (Métis); asinnajaq (Inuk); Sonny Assu (Ligwiłda’xw Kwakwaka’wakw from Wei Wai Kum Nation); Natalie Ball (Klamath/Modoc); Rick Bartow (Wiyot); Bob Boyer (Métis); Dana Claxton (Lakota); TJ Cuthand (Plains Cree, Scottish, Irish); Ruth Cuthand (Plains Cree, Scottish, Irish, Canadian); Beau Dick (Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgamakw Dzawada’enuxw First Nation); Demian DinéYahzi’ (Diné); Rosalie Favell (Métis (Cree/ British); Jeneen Frei Njootli (Vuntut Gwitchin, Czech and Dutch); Ishi Glinsky (Tohono O’odham); Raven Halfmoon (Caddo); Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill (Métis); Sky Hopinka (Ho-Chunk Nation/Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians); Matthew Kirk (Navajo/Diné); Kite (Oglala Sioux Tribe); Cannupa Hanska Luger (Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota); Tanya Lukin Linklater (Alutiiq/Sugpiaq); James Luna (Payómkawichum, Ipai, and Mexican); Rachel Martin (Tlingit/Tsaagweidei, Killer Whale Clan, of the Yellow Cedar House (Xaai Hit’) Eagle Moiety); Kent Monkman (Cree member of Fisher River Cree Nation in Treaty 5 Territory, Manitoba); Audie Murray (Métis); Lloyd Kiva New (Cherokee); New Red Order, Adam Khalil (Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians); Zack Khalil (Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians); Jackson Polys (Tlingit); Jessie Oonark (Inuit); Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (Salish member of the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Nation); Walter Scott (Kahnawá:ke); Spiderwoman Theater, Charlene Vickers (Anishinaabe); Kay WalkingStick (Citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and Anglo); Marie Watt (Seneca and German-Scot); Dyani White Hawk (Sičangu Lakota); and Nico Williams (Anishinaabe). A full list of artists is available online here.

Additional performances by Ya Tseen and Emily Johnson/Catalyst as well as a series of artists talks will be curated by the Center for Indigenous Studies in complement with Indian Theater throughout the duration of the show.

The Center for Indigenous Studies at Bard College

Indian Theater celebrates a new era of wide-ranging educational and innovative programs at Bard College placing Indigenous Studies at the heart of curricular initiatives and development thanks to a visionary gift by the Gochman Family Foundation. These include the hiring of Brandi Norton (Iñupiaq) as Curator of Public Programs for the Center for Indigenous Studies, in addition to the appointment of Hopkins as inaugural Fellow in Indigenous Art History and Curatorial Studies. 

Indian Theater marks an inauguration of these artistic, academic, and public programs.

About the Hessel Museum of Art

CCS Bard’s Hessel Museum of Art advances experimentation and innovation in contemporary art through its dynamic exhibitions and programs. Located on the campus of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, the Hessel organizes and presents group exhibitions and thematic surveys, monographic presentations, traveling exhibitions, as well as student-curated shows that are free and open to the public. T

he museum’s program draws inspiration from its unparalleled collection of contemporary art, which features the Marieluise Hessel Collection at its core and comprises more than 3,000 objects collected contemporaneously from the 1960s through the present day.

The Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College

The Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College (CCS Bard) is the leading institution dedicated to curatorial studies, a field exploring the conditions that inform contemporary exhibition-making and artistic practice. Through its Graduate Program, Library and Archives, and the Hessel Museum of Art, CCS Bard serves as an incubator for interdisciplinary practices, advances new and underrepresented perspectives in contemporary art, and cultivates a student body from diverse backgrounds in a broad effort to transform the curatorial field.

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