Diverse Dialogues

New shows at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts speak truth to power

Just a hop, skip and a jump away from the Plaza, Santa Fe's forward-thinking Institute of American Indian Arts' Museum of Contemporary Native Arts is situated directly across from the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis. Last September, protesters marched down these historic streets to challenge the 108-year-old Entrada pageant, which includes a reenactment of an 17th-century encounter between the Spanish conquistador Don Diego de Vargas and a Native American leader. Critics of the Entrada, in which participants dress in conquistador-inspired costumes, say it's revisionist and racist; supporters say it's a celebration of history.

Chad Browneagle (Shoshone-Bannock/Spokane), a senior at IAIA, is featured in the school's annual BFA show, hosted at MoCNA; he was also one of eight activists arrested during the 2017 Entrada protest. "For me, art and activism go hand-in-hand," Browneagle says. "I guess I feel obligated to take a political approach, not out of spite or revenge, but out of respect for my culture and for my elders." Browneagle's intricately drawn "America's Great Again" is pointedly political. Rendered in skinny strokes of colored marker and pen, the work depicts a Native warrior on a horse, machine gun in hand. Tied to his saddle are Star Wars Storm Trooper helmets, and just behind those, the severed head of Donald Trump. In his artist statement, Browneagle describes it as "a response to the actions against Indigenous people, other minorities, and most importantly against women."

"The Altar of my Sexuality" is an acrylic painting of two nude women, bodies intertwined, by senior Emma DeMarr (Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe). In their artist statement, DeMarr describes themselves as two-spirit, or someone for whom male and female attributes exist simultaneously and harmoniously. Over Facebook messages, DeMarr explained why the piece isn't political commentary, per se: "I don't see this painting as a political piece because it's rooted in my [personal] exploration of identity," they write. "It's more about the exaltation of my sexuality and queer sexuality in general."

In Dakota artist Avis Charley's "A Thinking Indian," a young Native woman wearing moccasins, traditional jewelry and an Adidas jacket sits in profile on a bench, resting her chin in her hand. Sunglasses cover her eyes, but she's looking off into the distance, and it seems clear she's got something on her mind. "I'm impressed by Avis Charley's ability to convincingly depict modern, strong Native women using the traditional art form of realistic portraiture," MoCNA's chief curator Manuela Well-Off-Man says of the piece.

Just down the hall is a separate exhibition, also opening Friday, Art and Activism: Selections from the Harjo Family Collection feels like too big of a show for the modest gallery it occupies, but that's probably because of the larger-than-life reputation of the collection's namesake, Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/ Hodulgee Muscogee). One of the country's preeminent female Native American activists, she has been instrumental in advancing the rights and causes of First Nations people for decades. (Quick example: The recent decision to remove the maniacally grinning, aggressively stereotyped Chief Wahoo from Cleveland Indians uniforms and branded items would arguably not have been possible without 72-year-old Harjo, who started campaigning pro sports teams to remove this kind of what-century-are-we-living-in insignia decades ago.) The show contains works drawn from the 60-piece Harjo Family Collection, recently donated to the museum and now part of its permanent holdings.

Well-loved artist Dan Namingha's (Hopi/Tewa) densely, dreamily colored abstract print shares exhibition space with the beguiling figurative sculpture of a similarly renowned Native American artist Roxane Swentzell of Santa Clara Pueblo. A classically styled portrait of Harjo, in which she appears pensively sitting by a window, caught my eye. Along the lower rim of the painting, a pair of tiny horse-and-riders gallop westward, leading us visually to the bottom left, where we see the elegant signature of none other than Leonard Peltier (Turtle Mountain Chippewa/Dakota/Lakota), who's been jailed for decades for the murder of two FBI agents during a standoff at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1973; problem is, there's no rock-solid evidence he committed the crime.

"That's really special," Well-Off-Man said when she noticed me checking out the contents of a little, opened blue box. "President Obama presented it to Suzan in 2014 in honor of her years of activism." It contains a Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest civilian honor one can receive.

Whether they outwardly challenge the status quo or not, the range of artworks in these provocative exhibitions offer plenty to see and ponder.

Art & Activism: Selections from The Harjo Family Collection

Breaking Ground: IAIA 2018 BFA Exhibition
5-7 pm Friday Feb. 16. Free.
IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts,
108 Cathedral Place,

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