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EQUALITY WITHOUT A STRUGGLE : Bowers Exhibit Shows Women Have a Place of Honor in American Indian Culture

February 25, 1993|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lancer who regularly writes for The Times Orange County Edition.

Curator Paul Apodaca insists that "Beauty: Art From the Center--Native American Women Artists" is more of an aesthetic statement than a political one. But he can't help pointing out that anyone who looks closely may find a stereotype or two collapsing in the wake.

"Sure, there's a significance in that American society has created a cliched image of the Indian woman as lowly chattel," Apodaca said.

"However, when you walk through and see all this wonderful artwork, see that it's high art, and you realize that it's all been done by women, you know what a high place they have in their culture. They have a place of high honor; their power is secure within Indian society."

Apodaca, who helped put together the exhibit at the City of Brea Gallery while continuing his job as curator of American Indian art at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, said the show should underscore that Indian men and women play an equal role, at least when it comes to the creation of both sacred and utilitarian objects.

Furthermore, the exhibit emphasizes how art is a natural extension of the Indian way of life. At a young age, children are taught to understand the connection between creativity, beauty and even the most practical or seemingly mundane elements of their world.

"All items, from baskets to weavings, contain aesthetic and cultural significance to them, the most rudimentary tools have an artistic sense," Apodaca explained. "You have to realize that art is seen as a form of personal discipline, of expression, of common value."

To provide an overview, Apodaca gathered more than 100 pieces ranging from the late 19th Century to modern times, some created as recently as last year. The arts and crafts include basketry, weaving, dolls, paintings, jewelry, gourds, clothing, beadwork and symbolic or spiritual objects such as animal skulls.

Tribes, or "cultures," represented include the Navajo, Apache, Cherokee, Juaneno, Hopi and others.

From a contemporary perspective, the more current pieces are intriguing as signs of an evolving culture maintaining links to the past. Artists like Mary Lynn Duwyenie (a Hopi), Pennie Alexander (Apache), Serena Shortey (Cherokee) and Nina Begay (Navajo), among others, embrace traditional values and styles while adding to them.

Alexander's carved and painted gourds, a fixture with many tribes, are the centerpiece of her corner of the exhibit, but the work she does with ceremonial animal skulls stands out. Her mule deer head is decorated with distinctive patterns and adorned with lush bird feathers and strings of beads, as is her larger bull skull.

The path between the old and the new is also obvious in the printed textiles of Duwyenie. "Benevolent Storm," which she describes as "simultaneously communicating opposing thoughts of balance and chaos," has a modernist verve: abstract, cross-like designs collide with more traditional elements in bright colors.

As contrast, her silk-screen "Rainmaking Girl," featuring a feminine rainmaking symbol with a pair of birds on her shoulders, looks almost ancient.

Duwyenie's weaving also provides one of the exhibit's showcases, a simple horizontal piece done in strikingly rich hues of mustard, purple, lavender and blue, with patches of black. While this piece may be the most striking, Nina Begay's Navajo wool rug is probably the most ancestral, using the "klagetoh" motif (angular, crosshatching designs) in alternating red, gray and black shapes.

The historic also meets the contemporary in Shortey's talismanic-looking pouches. Deer and elk hides--molded, stitched and painted with bear, deer and eagle symbols--possess an ages-old appearance. Shortey sticks with the familiar--spiritually significant medicine pouches are emphasized--but she also has an eye toward the needs of modern folk with her "sunglasses" pouches.

Apodaca said he wouldn't mind if visitors saw the exhibit as a local answer to all the recent shows across the country that focused on Columbus' impact on America.

"We didn't do anything big on Columbus in Orange County, which I think was appropriate," he said. "This, I think, is more appropriate, because it makes such a positive statement about the indigenous people, those that were here before Columbus. It's valuable to recognize them."

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