Awash in tradition, Native American art has experienced a contemporary renaissance thanks to artisans-cum-imagemakers who challenge the historical norm. This pre-Indian Market three-part series that started with painter Ehren Natay—who is as inspired by pottery patterns as he is by video-game grids—and later, Gino Natchez, who goes from emblazoning the image of Chief Joseph to that of Al Pacino as Scarface on a cuff in a single leap, now focuses on the meticulous 2D artistry of Teri Greeves.
“I’m a beadworker first. If you want to call me an artist, that’s fine,” Greeves says modestly, even though one of her pieces—a pair of beaded Converse high-tops—resides in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
Taking a break from the adorned (and highly collectible) “white-man shoes,” her latest show—comprising five “pictorial flatwork” pieces—features masterful beading on brain-tanned deer hide.
The resulting work juxtaposes centuries-old Native imagery against classic and pop art works like the Mona Lisa, Gabrielle d’Estrées’ infamous topless portrait and, in one case, a representation of Greeves’ mother staring at Warhol’s “Double Elvis,” a tongue-in-cheek manifesto on her mom’s aversion to modern art.
“My mother hates Elvis, and she’s completely unimpressed by contemporary art,” she says. “I took her to MoMA and she walked through it in an hour.”
“We are human beings living in this day in age, and I can’t help but to be influenced by the world around me,” the mother of two says. “So in order for me to be personally authentic, I have to address the world that I come from. I do not live in the past, and I don’t live in the future; I live right here and now.”
Calling beadwork “the ugly stepchild” of the Native arts scene, she says some people are quick to lower her work to craft status.
“Even though I’m making 2D pieces [that are] completely nonfunctional, completely not craft, it’s still kind of thought of that way,” she says. “While I know my family and them are proud of me, I’m also not making moccasins. I’m not making dresses to dance in; I’m not making traditional objects with traditional designs that continue in that traditional cultural footprint of what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable.”
Issues like politics, war and the struggle for human rights also fuel her process.
“It’s that intersection between the non-Native and the Native world that I find really interesting,” she says, adding that her grandmother was 24 years old before she was officially considered a citizen of the US and allowed to vote.
Taking a breather from beading, she then flips one of the pieces over to reveal its intricate provenance. “What I do is pretty labor-intensive,” she points out. In the maze of thread, she’s lost count of how many stitches went into this work-in-progress.
“Who knows? Thousands.”
Speaking specifically about Indian Market, Greeves expresses gratitude towards the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts for launching her career, but is also frank on the double-edged sword that comes with being “the deciders” of what constitutes Native art.
“It’s a mixed bag,” she says of her feelings on the annual fair.
So what actually fits into the definition of Native art?
“That is a question for the ages,” she muses. “I can only answer it for myself: I don’t even see the necessity of having it called Native art. I think that human beings across the planet, from whatever we come from, we express ourselves with the materials and medium that historically have been handed down to us.”