Project Indigene and Speaking the Hard Truths of Colonialism

“EPOCHS - American Idol” from a new series by Frank Buffalo Hyde, available at Tansey Contemporary
“EPOCHS – American Idol” from a new series by Frank Buffalo Hyde, available at Tansey Contemporary (image courtesy of Frank Buffalo Hyde)

ALBUQUERQUE — Frank Buffalo Hyde’s “EPOCHS – American Idol” depicts a Native drum circle in front of the logo for the singing competition show American Idol. The otherwise empty background and thin, dispersed lines of blue paint emphasize the artificial, even dreamlike quality of the scene, as if it were a memory caught in the midst of recollection.

Buffalo Hyde is a Native artist — Onondaga and Nez Perce to be specific — and he lives in Santa Fe. His work has been classified as contemporary Native art, in opposition to what are typically considered traditional Native artforms, such as pottery, blankets, beads, and jewelry. However, for Buffalo Hyde, the dichotomy between contemporary and traditional is trite and tired. He supports all forms of Native art, and the only classification that matters to him is whether or not it represents the Native experience from a Native perspective.

“When I started making art, I didn’t see any art that depicted my experience, and I set out to do that,” he explains to Hyperallergic.

Frank Buffalo Hyde’s “Counting Coup #nodapl” appeared in his recent solo show, I-Witness Culture at the Museum of Indian Art and Culture
Frank Buffalo Hyde, “Counting Coup #nodapl,” appeared in his recent solo show, I-Witness Culture at the Museum of Indian Art and Culture (image courtesy of Project Indigene)

Buffalo Hyde has both suffered the consequences and reaped the rewards of refusing to paint “beautiful sunsets,” he says. Regardless, throughout his career, he has consistently touted the position that Native artists, rather than collectors, should be leading the discussions on and defining the markets for Native art. So, when a collection of eight Santa Fe cultural institutions approached him to talk about a new initiative expressing this very mission, Buffalo Hyde quickly became their de facto ambassador.

“This is exactly what I’ve been doing for my career,” he said. “It’s the discussion I create in my own practice.”

The initiative, Project Indigene, brings together the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) and its Museum of Contemporary Native Art (MoCNA); the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (MIAC); the Museum of International Folk Art; the Ralph T. Coe Center for the Arts; the School for Advanced Research (SAR); the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA), which runs the annual Santa Fe Indian Market; the Native Treasures Art Market; and the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian.

The initiative’s head of public relations readily admitted to me that Project Indigene is marketing driven, an attempt by these institutions to promote their artists and programming leading up to the Santa Fe Indian Market on August 11–19. However, if institutions do one thing well, it’s pick up on trends; their desire to remain relevant has forced them to recognize that Native artists like Buffalo Hyde are leading the conversations. In this sense, Project Indigene suggests a decolonial shift in the institutional representation of Native people.

As Amy Lonetree argues in Decolonizing Museums, the anthropological foundations of Native representation in museums not only influenced the types of exhibitions, but also the public’s understanding of Native social and political economies. Santa Fe Indian Market itself began in 1922 as a private anthropological exposition where wealthy, white collectors showed off their gains and told their stories of encounters with Native people. Project Indigene, in contrast, points to the possibility of what Lonetree calls a decolonizing museum practice, dedicated “to speaking the hard truths of colonialism” first and foremost from the mouths of Native people. One of those truths is that the traditional/contemporary Native art dichotomy suggests a genealogical break in Indigenous histories, as if Native people can’t exist in the present through a variety of practices and relations; hence, Buffalo Hyde’s “EPOCHS — American Idol” does not intervene in pop culture, but rather claims the right to represent pop culture from his perspective as it acts and interacts with the rest of his experience, whether or not a viewer wants to label it as particularly “Native.”

“Shoes, Two Pairs” by Teri Greeves in the collection at the School for Advanced Research
Teri Greeves, “Shoes, Two Pairs,” in the collection at the School for Advanced Research (image courtesy of Project Indigene)

The genealogical break also occurs through appropriations of Indigenous artforms that represent Native art as merely the raw material for more sophisticated, modern forms. As Kiowa artist Teri Greeves explains, abstract expressionism is one of those appropriations. In Western art history, Georgia O’Keefe’s work is often considered a revolutionary feminist claim to a predominantly masculine form, but as Greeves argues, abstract expressionism derived from a feminine Native eye realized in traditional mediums, such as rawhide paintings, beadwork, quillwork, textiles, baskets, and ceramics.

“The men painted pictorially,” Greeves says to Hyperallergic. “They were the historians. The original abstract eye in North America is a female eye, and I go further to say during the time that abstract art was being made in North America; the men that created it were being exposed to Native art in museums, women’s art.”

Known in permanent collections across the world for her beaded shoes, Greeves has been exploring abstraction as a private conversation between herself and her Kiowa relatives, evoking her ancestors, she says, who embedded their work with ideas that colonial agents, such as Catholic priests, had prohibited them from expressing. During Indian Market, she sells “fancy evening bags” to pay the bills, but the rest of her work is inexpressible to the formal art market. It’s for her people. “I realized that our material culture is made for us,” Greeves says. “My objects, language, my Kiowa visual language is for me, from my Kiowa people, for my Kiowa people. My art is an extension of that. This entire [art] world could disappear, and it wouldn’t matter to the people back home.”

Installation view of Cannupa Hanska Luger’s “Every One” from the Galleries of Contemporary Art at University of Colorado, Colorado Springs
Installation view of Cannupa Hanska Luger’s “Every One” from the Galleries of Contemporary Art at University of Colorado, Colorado Springs (image courtesy of Project Indigene)

The material urgency of self-representation, which includes the right to withhold representation, cannot be understated on a continent still overwritten by the narrative of disappearing Indians. This is the story reproduced by countless 19th century landscape artists: that Indigenous people ceded their lands to Western civilization. And the narrative exists today along the borders of Indian reservations, where the disappearance of Native women correlates with the presence of extractive industries. Though scholars and activists have recently begun gathering data on missing Indigenous women in the U.S., no government agency in the U.S. tracks these statistics, so Santa Fe-based artist Cannupa Hanska Luger looked to Canada’s statistics on Murder and Missing Indigenous Women (MMIW) to inform his installation, “Every One.”

Luger — who lists Austrian and Norwegian along with Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, and Lakota in his tribal affiliation — assembled a 12-foot-tall, 15-foot-wide beaded curtain composed of 64 strands of 64 handmade beads that together depict an anonymous Indigenous woman in greyscale. The 4,069 beads represent the 4,096 murdered and missing Indigenous women that Canada has on record — every one of them — though Luger also grieves for the missing queer and trans Indigenous family members who are not included in the data sets. The image comes from a photograph titled “Sister,” by First Nations (Kaska Dena) artist Kali Spitzer, and Luger collected the beads from collaborators throughout the Americas, most if not all of whom have lost a loved one to settler violence, including Luger.

Cannupa Hanska Luger’s “Every One” with collaborators, photographed from an aerial drone
Cannupa Hanska Luger’s “Every One” with collaborators, photographed from an aerial drone (image courtesy of Project Indigene)

“If we look at land as resource rather than reverence, we’re already taking from mother,” Luger says to Hyperallergic, reflecting on the correlative violence between MMIW and resource extraction. “You’re being rewarded as a worker to take from land. It’s one step closer to taking from the people of that land.”

For Luger’s social justice approach to art-making, Project Indigene registers his work under the banner of “activism.” It’s one of four themes the initiative’s organizers have created to describe and categorize their artists. The others are appropriation, authenticity, art, and identity. Given that part of the story that Buffalo Hyde and others are telling is that Native artists resist classification and work across classifications, it might be too hopeful to read Project Indigene as a truly decolonial collaboration with Native communities. Yet, Project Indigene’s attempt to draw these categories from Indigenous output does suggest that what Buffalo Hyde says is true: Native artists are defining their own markets and themes, telling their own stories.

“The new generation of Native artists is rejecting what previous generations defined as Native art,” Buffalo Hyde says. “They’re embracing a new version that is more inclusive. [These institutions] are seeing a trend that’s been happening for a while, and they want to acknowledge that trend to reach different audiences.”

Frank Buffalo Hyde is represented at Tansey Contemporary in Santa Fe and Denver. Teri Greeves can be found in booth LIN E 731 at Indian Market and a pair of her beaded shoes appears in the show Beadwork Adorns the World at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe; she is also co-curator for a show dedicated to Native women at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, scheduled for May 19, 2019. Cannupa Hanska Luger’s “Every One” hangs at the folk art museum through September 21. For more information on Project Indigene, artists, events, exhibitions, and partners, visit newmexicoculture.org/projectindigene.

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