Art Exhibition Showcases Work From Native Artists Grappling With Contemporary Issues

Dec 4, 2019

For generations Native Americans were left out of the mainstream art world. An exhibition called "Art for a New Understanding: Native Voices 1950s to Today" aims to correct this oversight and recast the history of contemporary art to include work by Native Americans.

It is the first collection showing the evolution of work by modern Indigenous artists in the United States and Canada. The exhibition features approximately 60 diverse artworks, including paintings, performances and photography. Host Frank Stasio talks to Chicago-based artist Andrea Carlson whose piece “Ink Babel” is featured in the exhibition. Carlson is Ojibwe and regularly features landscapes and storied objects in her work. Jenny Tone-Pah-Hote joins the conversation to put the art into a larger cultural context. She is an associate professor in the department of American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Art for a New Understanding: Native Voices, 1950s to Now” is on view at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in Durham until Sunday, Jan. 12, 2020.

Interview Highlights

Carlson on how she thinks about landscape in her work:

Landscape has historically come out of, maybe Flemish landscapes, or even how world leaders have seen landscapes and have used them as political devices. They are typically these little chunks — these little bite-sized pieces of the land. When you think of settler colonization, when you think of land conquest, there is this romanticizing [of] landscapes that happens. So I would say that when an indigenous person references the landscape, there is something else — there's another narrative that is happening there. When I consider the landscape, I consider this unified sphere that we all live on, topologically speaking. We can cut it up into pieces and imagine it as separate landscapes, but there is actually just one landscape — [a] continual surface of a sphere that we all live on.

Carlson on the problematic space of museums:

When I bring my work to a museum — and it has this history, it comes from colonization — it seems like a very defiant act just within itself. - Andrea Carlson

They have this goal of collecting for posterity — of collecting with the anticipation that indigenous people would be assimilated culturally, and that we wouldn't continue on. So our objects were collected [and] put in museums. And we survived. And we are still making things, and we are alive now. So when I bring my work to a museum — and it has this history, it comes from colonization — it seems like a very defiant act just within itself.

Tone-Pah-Hote on how “Art for a New Understanding” puts this work into context:

The exhibit does a great job of really showing that native art, or that art by American Indian artists, by native artists has always been sort of situated and in discussion — especially in the 20th century — with modernity and modernism. That native artists and native people are part of the same timeline as everyone else.