One of Many

Curator Amber-Dawn Bear Robe kicks off new online exhibition series through SWAIA

"I'm calling this an 'online exhibition,' and I want to be clear that it's not virtual," curator Amber-Dawn Bear Robe (Blackfoot Sikiska) tells SFR. "We want it to be an online gallery space, and each month we'll be doing a new theme."

Bear Robe's upcoming online event through the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA) fits with the organization's ongoing efforts to both offer up a more robust online experience during the COVID-19 pandemic and to loop in more contemporary and conceptual artists. While massive in scope—and a financial godsend for Indigenous artists—SWAIA's annual Indian Market is, according to Bear Robe, very Southwestern and steeped in tradition. She'd like to evolve the narrative.

"For this show," she says, "I'm looking at fiber artists, but not who you'd think of when you think of fiber arts—for example, I'm looking at artists who use unconventional materials that mimic or represent fiber arts."

Bear Robe points immediately to Barry Ace (Anishinaabe), a mixed-media creator from Greater Sudbury in Ontario, Canada, whose pieces for the upcoming online exhibition look like traditional Native regalia from afar but reveal a surprising reality upon closer inspection.

"They look like beads, but they're computer materials, transistors; materials that are not used for clothing," Bear Robe explains. "He's speaking to the power of Indigenous people, of bringing Native people into the future and our connections to these other worlds."

That level of unexpectedness permeates Bear Robe's plans for the first exhibit.

Anita Fields (Osage), for example, turns the idea of wearable clothing into pieces fit to hang on any wall. A militaristic coat opens to reveal antique photography; masks created in response to COVID-19 feature both traditional symbolic and design elements, but throw in subtly complex beading, Osage ribbon work and even a pill pouch ripe for commentary.

New York's Jeffrey Gibson (Choctaw and Cherokee) shines as well. His current show at Culver City, California's Roberts Projects includes a gorgeous punching bag piece made of trading post carpet, felt, beads, nylon, cotton and more; a similar punching bag piece contains mind-blowing levels of detailed beadwork, and Gibson's been known to create doll-like creatures from tin, copper and more fibers than seem possible in a single cohesive piece.

Look as well to the Northwest Coast, where fiber artist Meghann O'Brien (Kwakwaka'wakw) works with basketry and Yeil Koowu (also known as Raven's Tail), a weaving pattern with origins among the Tlingit and Haida weavers in Alaska. Even a cursory glance at O'Brien's site finds a near-flawless marriage of minimalist presentation and complex execution—the baskets alone are jaw-dropping, and the symbolic presence runs deep.

And there are many more artists included, nine total, such as Vancouver's Charlene Vickers (Anishinaabe), who works in woven coverings; multi-media creator Wally Dion (Salteaux) who, like Ace, uses computer parts—in one stunning instance, circuit boards—to build large-scale tapestry; and Merritt Johnson, whose woven basket grenades are reason enough to pay attention on their own without her wider focus on narrative, shadow and light and the examination of existence.

"The Native art circle is honestly pretty small," Bear Robe says. "We all generally know each other, but also, because I'm from Canada, I have this scope that is outside the Southwest bubble. The contemporary Native art scene in Canada is so vibrant and so well-represented and is such a huge part of the arts up there, period—this is just such a great platform for me to be able to bring in these artists who'd maybe never even think to work with SWAIA. It's OK to show art that doesn't have a pricetag."

And again, it's just a start. Bear Robe already helms the massively popular fashion show segment of SWAIA's yearly -offerings, and she's hard at work on February's online exhibition, the theme being jewelry. If this month's kickoff event is any indication, we can likely expect artists working outside of cut-and-dry milieus.

"I'm reaching out to artists who push boundaries and manipulate materials in ways that are both innovative and conceptual," says Bear Robe.

Other items on the docket include an updated SWAIA site, the return of some form of fashion show (Bear Robe says she's eyeing an outdoor event but can't reveal more just yet) and potential guest curators for ongoing online shows.

"The possibilities are endless," Bear Robe adds. "We can hopefully even start working globally. SWAIA is branching out and really wanting to reach new audiences."

Art of Indigenous Fibers:
Monday, Jan. 25-Sunday, Jan. 7. Free.

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