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A native sensibility to Autry exhibition

The Griffith Park museum enlisted the aid of 13 Indian artisans for a display of traditional baskets drawn from the Southwest Museum's vast collection.

January 10, 2010|By Suzanne Muchnic

Pardue's "Woven Rainbow" is a tiny, lidded trinket basket of beach grass, raffia, cotton, embroidery, thread and dye. Kelly Church, an Ottawa and Chippewa weaver from Michigan, used strips of black ash and dye to fashion a bristling, bright red basket in the form of a giant strawberry. Julia Parker, a Kashaya Pomo and Coast Miwok artist, and her daughter, Lucy, who live in Yosemite Valley, combined glass beads and abalone shell with native grasses in gift baskets.

"Heritage and Hi-tech," a basket of waxed linen, glass beads and dye by Emarthle-Douglas, may not attract much attention because it looks like an ordinary bowl. But in a procession of little figures woven around the sides, Native American horseback riders and pedestrians talk on cellphones, write text messages and play video games.

"I got the idea at a pow wow," she says. "You see all the native people dressed in their regalia, but the kids are texting and some of the adults are on cellphones. It's a mix of both worlds."

As Pardue puts it, "culture is evolving."

So are attitudes about displaying Native American art. The tendency to present it as part of a living culture instead of remnants of a long-gone way of life, emerged with a splash in 2004, when the National Museum of the American Indian opened in Washington, D.C. With exhibits shaped by many consultants, the museum has a mission of "advancing knowledge and understanding of the Native cultures of the Western Hemisphere, past, present and future, through partnership with Native people and others."

Inviting native people to interpret the museum's collections signaled a paradigm shift that had been developing for years, Karr says. And it brought heated criticism. Washington Post columnist Mark Fisher lamented the "trendy faux-selflessness of today's historian" to "let the Indians present themselves as they wish to be seen." In the New York Times, Edward Rothstein bemoaned the museum's "studious avoidance of scholarship." The result of listening to so many constituencies, he wrote, "is that a monotony sets in; every tribe is equal, and so is every idea."

But the controversy seems to have subsided as Native American art has gained a larger presence at museums of art and history. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., recently unveiled a suite of American Indian galleries intended to represent the work as an important part of the nation's cultural legacy -- adjacent to traditional American art galleries.

At the Denver Art Museum, a general art museum with a strong Native American collection, veteran curator Nancy Blomberg says the biggest change she has witnessed in her career is "working with Native American artists and communities to represent them hand in hand, to have those voices included in your exhibits." She's working on a new installation of the collection that she describes as "even more artist-centered than it has been."

For some artists involved in the Southwest show, simply seeing the works on public display is a thrill. "When I walked through the door, I wanted to cry," says Julia Parker, who learned to weave from her husband's grandmother. "I hope that people will begin to understand what these women left for us, the peace, harmony and beauty."

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