SANTA FE, N.M. — "There's this tendency to think of Indians sitting by the roadside selling trinkets," says Kathryn Harris Tijerina. "If people want to see ethnographic material, this is not the place to come."
This "place" is the newly relocated and renovated museum of the Institute of American Indian Arts. Directed, curated and staffed by Indians, it is the only museum in the world devoted entirely to contemporary Indian art. Tijerina, president of the institute, says she hopes the new museum will make Indian artists more visible and help them in their quest to be taken seriously.
"For the first time, it really is a setting for our own cultural voice," Tijerina says. "We can take it back and express it our way, rather than have someone impose it upon us."
That voice echoes loud and clear through the work of about 200 artists displayed in the museum's premiere exhibition, "Creativity Is Our Tradition: Three Decades of Contemporary Art at the Institute of American Indian Arts."
The exhibition presents the early work of many well-established Indian artists who got their start as students at the institute over the past 30 years.
A rich, eye-dazzling sampling of the 8,000 works in the museum's permanent collection, the exhibition ranges from the sardonic (Barry Coffin's rubber chicken-clutching sculpture, "Wally Koshare Meets Rambo") to the sublime (Marcus Amerman's delicate beadwork portrait, "Big-Bow-Kiowa"). The rounded, solid pueblo buildings in Hopi-Tewa painter Dan Namingha's 1979 painting, "Autumn Morning," speak to the endurance of a traditional way of life after centuries of contact with outsiders.
"The Great Native Dream," a Pop Art homage by Delamar Boni, is a tart commentary on Indians who try too hard to act like white people, depicting five Indians in sunglasses gazing at lipsticks, with visions of an ice cream cone floating above their heads. And Da Ka Xeen, a young Tlinget photographer, reveals the influence of the late Robert Mapplethorpe in "Trinity," a stark testament to martyrdom composed of three black-and-white pictures of a manacled Indian man that have been tacked to a rough wooden cross crowned by a halo of barbed wire.
The work may well disturb those who cherish notions of traditional, "culturally pure" Indian art, but that's part of the point, says Tijerina. She adds that modern Indian art for too long has been dismissed on the one hand as derivative and regional, and on the other regarded as an anthropological curiosity worthy only of consignment to natural history museums.
"I think it's important that the museum be able to show the contemporary aspect of Native American art that's being done today," says Namingha, who studied at the institute from 1967-69. "The mainstream museums shy away from anything done by Native Americans. It's frustrating to a lot of Native American artists who are working in a contemporary context."
Namingha, who recently had a successful solo show at the all-contemporary Palm Springs Desert Museum, believes the mainstream arts community might be surprised if it took a close look at modern Indian artists.
"Some of the work being done today has to do with social issues and political issues, as well as spirituality," he says. "I think if Native American people could get that chance to show their work, it would be very powerful."
Although it has been open barely a month, the museum already attracts 300 visitors a day in a season when attendance is down at the city's other major art collections. Some of the foot traffic undoubtedly is due to location. The museum occupies a 70-year-old, nicely renovated building across from historic St. Francis Cathedral, a leisurely, one-block stroll east of the Plaza.
The institute traces its roots to the arts program founded in the 1930s at the Santa Fe Indian School, a boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. At a time when Indians were taught art skills for strictly vocational purposes, the school's training studio encouraged students to revive and reclaim traditional artistic styles.
But by 1962, that process had grown constricting. The bureau opened the institute as a secondary school devoted to arts training, attracting students from throughout the country. In the early years, its faculty included such pioneering Indian artists as Allan Houser, Fritz Scholder and Lloyd Kiva New.
Even though it had evolved into a two-year college and leased space on the campus of the College of Santa Fe, the school fell on hard times in the late 1970s, and it was nearly closed early in the Reagan Administration because of federal budget constraints.
The institute was weaned from the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1988, when it was chartered by Congress as a nonprofit educational institution, officially known as the Institute of American Indian and Alaska Native Culture and Arts Development. The school receives an annual appropriation from Congress ranging from $7 million to $9 million.