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UNC-Chapel Hill's art museum centers Native American art in new exhibition

An oil on canvas painting depicts brightly-dressed people surrounding a group of teepees and a green tree, set against a blue sky.
Courtesy of Ackland Art Museum
Gilcrease Museum
"Indian Gathering," a 1933 oil painting by Kiowa artist Stephen Mopope is a part of the Gilcrease Museum's traveling exhibition showcasing American Indian art.

A new exhibition showcasing American Indian art opens Friday at UNC-Chapel Hill's Ackland Art Museum.

The traveling exhibition of about 75 works is called Past Forward: Native American Art from Gilcrease Museum. The Gilcrease Museum, located in Tulsa, Oklahoma, has a collection that was largely built by the late Thomas Gilcrease, a member of the Muscogee Nation.

The Ackland is the first of three venues in the U.S. to feature the traveling exhibition.

An oil on canvas painting depicts a crowd forming a line. Many wear green headpieces. The landscape has mountains in the background and clay-looking buildings.
Courtesy of Ackland Art Museum
Gilcrease Museum
In 1940, Hopi artist Fred Kabotie painted "Pueblo Green Corn Dance." It's part of the traveling exhibit from the Gilcrease Museum.

According to Peter Nisbet, Ackland's deputy director for curatorial affairs, the pieces in the exhibition include ancient and contemporary artworks from multiple tribes, such as the Kiowa and Cherokee. Some European American artworks are also part of the exhibition, Nisbet said, to encourage a dialogue about cultural exchange.

Rather than being arranged by artist or time period, the collection is organized into four concepts: ceremony, sovereignty, visual abstraction and identity.

“There are many points of entry into this exhibition, which is, I think, one of its strengths,” Nisbet said. “There are these themes we're talking about. There's the individual objects themselves that can be stunningly beautiful. There is the larger question — the Ackland is thinking about its own engagement with Native American art. It is a rich, rich show.”

Included in the exhibition are pieces that are thousands of years old, like a butterfly-shaped bannerstone dating back to at least 1000 B.C.E. But the exhibition aims to emphasize works from the 19th century and onwards. Making up about a quarter of the exhibition are works created within the past 50 years, according to Nisbet.

“Modern Native American artists of our own time have consciously looked back to earlier traditions to reanimate them, to have that as an ongoing continual conversation with the past,” Nisbet said. “The title of the show hopes to allude to that.”

A temper on paper artwork depicting eight people standing in a line — four in the foreground, four in the background. They wear ornate masks and vibrant clothing.
Courtesy of Ackland Art Museum
Gilcrease Museum
Waldo Mootzka, Hopi, 1903 – 1938, Bean Dance, early 20th century, tempera on paper. Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, OK.

By having such an exhibition at the Ackland, Nisbet said one of the museum’s goals is to increase recognition of Midwestern artists who are lesser-known along the East Coast.

“The exhibition itself has a goal of making an argument that Native American art is not just a facet of American art,” Nisbet said. “It’s its own tradition, in a way. It has its own strengths, but is also an essential part of the broader story.”

Nisbet said he hopes that through the exploration of the exhibition’s themes, the works resonate with audiences at the university and across the state, especially considering that North Carolina has the largest American Indian population east of the Mississippi River. It is home to the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation, the Coharie, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the Haliwa-Saponi, the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, the Meherrin, the Sappony, the Waccamaw Siouan, and the Tuscarora.

In addition to the traveling exhibition, the Ackland will feature its own collection of American Indian art and host interactive programs, like guided tours and scholarly lectures. The exhibition runs through April 28.

Sophie Mallinson is a daily news intern with WUNC for summer 2023. She is a recent graduate from UNC-Chapel Hill, where she studied journalism. Sophie is from Greenville, N.C., but she enjoys the new experiences of the Triangle area. During her time as a Tar Heel, Sophie was a reporter and producer for Carolina Connection, UNC-Chapel Hill’s radio program. She currently is heavily involved in science education at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center.
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