Native Talent

Santa Fe's Native artists are breaking from tradition, but is their work truly contemporary?

Cannupahanska's story is the story of his people. They are the same.

Born Cannupa Hanska Luger in Fort Yates, N. Dak., on the Standing Rock Reservation—home to the Hunkpapa Lakota—his first name was broken up to fit the birth certificate, and he inherited the last name Luger. He is an enrolled member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, known as the Three Affiliated Tribes, located on the upper Missouri River, and his family owns land and participates in the community in an area known as Lucky Mound. His lineage is Norwegian, German, Lakota, MHA Nation, possibly even French and Italian on his father's side, and he has lived in Phoenix; Olympia, Wash.; Seattle and Santa Fe. He has been a slam poet, an MC and a street artist.

Though his formal education began at the Institute of American Indian Arts, he started painting as a member of the band Saints of Everyday Failures in Olympia. "Every show, I would go into the alleys in whatever town and drag something from the environment and start painting on it there," he says.

Now a ceramic artist, he works out of a studio atop a hill near a home he shares with his partner and newborn in Nambé. It's an ample space with multiple work and storage areas and a wrap-around couch. His identity resides in that space, and for it he has reclaimed the name Cannupahanska.

"Being an artist is an opportunity to use my actual name," he says.

Among other young and innovative Native artists in Santa Fe, the 33-year-old is one of the more outspoken about the limitations of what Southwestern Association for Indian Arts' outgoing executive director Bruce Bernstein refers to as the "Native box," or the tendency to group all Native artists together under a set of formal and cultural obligations­—from the materials and methods used to make art to the corresponding themes and narratives.

Though Cannupahanska strongly identifies with his Native heritage, he also believes it doesn’t tell the whole story. And, as he describes the limitations set for Native art, it becomes apparent he’s also talking about the space Natives themselves hold.

"The whole notion of Native art was not developed to create a dialogue of existence within this world, but to talk about existence that was before," Cannupahanska says.

He wants to change the dialogue to one about where Natives are now—as individuals, as a people, as a nation, as Americans.

"We are dealing with the same trials and tribulations as your average Americans," he says. "Our reservations are rough. They're like third-world rough—a ghetto would be nice. But we're still alive, we're still thriving."

The discussion on what constitutes Native art, and what constitutes contemporary Native art, seems to be getting its steam from Cannupahanska's peers and mentors, but curators, academics and staff at SWAIA are also talking about a palpable rise in contemporary Native art interested in critical dialogue more than commercialism. That they're talking at all is evidence that a larger dialogue is taking place, though a divide still separates Native artists, with few exceptions, from the international art world.

Some blame the enduring influence of tradition—one that has made artists and critics sheepish, for fear of offending—while others say that any artist, Native or not, simply has to produce work worthy of a world stage and its prejudices. Still others say that "contemporary" is merely a matter of perspective, and that a space on the wall in an international museum or gallery may not be the goal. The irony is that while Santa Fe remains fixated on Abstract Expressionism and Southwestern landscapes and, as a result, has suffered a drought of fresh ideas and talent—evidenced, perhaps, by the number of contemporary galleries that have closed in the last year—its Native talent has begun a vigorous debate on contemporary art.

The question about where the boundary lies between commercial art and critical contemporary art is universal. But for Natives like Cannupahanska and Frank Buffalo Hyde, the stakes are nothing less than their entire cultures. Events like SWAIA's Santa Fe Indian Market provide a living for many Native communities by creating a space for artists to sell their work, they say, but allotting that space isn't any different from allotting a reservation. Native Americans—and Native artists, as a form of spokespeople—want to be part of the American narrative.

"In the end, [Native art] is marginalized," Cannupahanska says. "It's set aside for…which is totally different from  [the] international art world, where you are judged by your work…and, how well you schmooze it up. But you're not being marginalized."

A Painter of His Time
But that's not always the case. Native Americans have been the subject of works admitted into SITE Santa Fe, the city's international contemporary art museum. As recently as the Agitated Histories biennial in 2011, Sam Durant's drawings and light boxes told the story of the American Indian Movement. And artists such as Charlene Teters, who teaches at IAIA, and Gerald McMaster, who spoke at Indian Market in August, have broken into the dialogue at SITE with conceptual works.

Chief Curator and Artistic Director Irene Hofmann says innovation is essential to the definition of "contemporary."

"As a curator, I am looking at work that is being made all over the world, that is engaged in pushing the boundaries of medium, of ideas, that help us see our contemporary life in a new light. It doesn't privilege any one medium, but ideas, and it's not always work that is intended or seeks to be part of a contemporary art dialogue."

Artist Tony Abeyta, who works with collectors and galleries rather than museums, says that most viewers can feel the difference between real innovation and its derivatives.

"Sometimes you find work that looks and feels contemporary," he says. "It has all the right kinds of I's dotted and T's crossed, but it lacks a deeper passion and substance. You might be contemporary in terms of being now, but what is your contribution?"

At 47, Abeyta comes from a different generation of artists than Cannupahanska. He identifies strongly with his Native roots, he says, but he also feels "like this white guy," because he's spent so much of his life on the road.

Born in Gallup to a Navajo father and an Anglo mother, he left home at 16 to attend IAIA and, though he always seems to return to northern New Mexico, he's been itinerant since. After studying at the Maryland Institute College of Art, he had some early success with collectors, which propelled his career—and the corresponding lifestyle.

"I was like this art student with money for sushi," he says. "It was a big party."

But Abeyta was dissatisfied with the work itself, so he returned to school, studying in southern France, Italy and the Chicago Art Institute. He married a member of Taos Pueblo and had kids, but soon after felt trapped by "regional restrictions" as an artist, so he took his family to Venice, Italy. He earned his masters through New York University, got divorced and moved to Chicago before settling in Santa Fe.

"I've been working…on fire," he says. "I have had a long change of exhibitions, shows and I'm having different experiences with painting, drawing, sculpture, jewelry…"

This focus on work—coupled with the fact that he's considering a second graduate degree to open himself up to new techniques—comes from his desire to leave a mark.

"I've got 24 years of career left," Abeyta says. "Is that enough to say who I am? Does that define me? Or can that transcend into something more meaningful?"

Yet, during an interview in his loft studio on Palace Ave., he insists that up-and-coming artists such as Cannupahanska and Frank Buffalo Hyde are leading the current critical dialogue. Abeyta, then, is their forebear—a Native American who's been able to reach into the larger contemporary art world, albeit at a time when the dialogue centered more on abstraction and technique. He sees his work as transitional—he was the next big thing in Native art at a time when other famous artists made Santa Fe their haunt. He references Danny England, Harry Fonseca and RC Gorman.

"I knew all of them," Abeyta says, "and it was an exciting time to be in Santa Fe."

In the Name of the Father
As the influence of Southwest geometric abstraction remains visible in Abeyta's work to this day, his paintings might be better thought of as more contemporary than Native. They don't struggle as much with the essential dilemma of emerging Native artists: While any successful contemporary artist references the past while looking to the future, the question of relevance in Native arts also hinges on whether the artist, or the viewer, privileges tradition or innovation.

Bernstein argues that the word contemporary—as a set of ideas and aesthetics describing the new or innovative—imposes limitations on Native art, because Native art continues to renew itself. Even works made with traditional materials in a traditional manner are creating new narratives of Native life. "If you're using the word 'contemporary,' you're putting in an opposition to something," Bernstein says. "You're saying, 'This is traditional; this is contemporary.' But those are two words, I just personally think, that have no place in talking about Native art."

One word that does have particular consequence when talking about Native arts is "heritage." Ask a Native how he became an artist and he may say something like "by default," but then he'll expand by saying that one of his parents was an artist. Abeyta's father was a painter who supported himself and his family with a day job, "a punch-clock kind of job." Cannupahanska's mother supported him and his siblings with her Indian Market sales. And Frank Buffalo Hyde's father, Doug Hyde, is a Puebloan who turned an Indian Market award for sculpture into a lifelong career. The difference between Hyde's career and his son's, however, might describe the conflict between tradition and innovation in Native art. They both attempt to honor their people, but whereas the father attempts to emphasize the proud warrior spirit or humble tribal customs, the son strives to lift the turquoise-colored glasses.

"A lot of people think because [my father] was so successful that I grew up in the lap of luxury, but I didn't—he has three families, and I was the first family, and the only time we reaped anything from his notoriety was when we would go to shows," Buffalo Hyde says. "The rest of the time we lived in third-world conditions on a reservation."

Buffalo Hyde spent school years with his mother, a Six Nations Shoshone in central New York, and the summers with his father. Perusing the issues of Southwest Art Magazine in his dad's office, he wondered why the ads and artists were the same, year after year, and where he fit in. Then he looked further back across the history of Native art and saw "this very long period of people getting famous and rich, but with no social statement or sense of being responsible to your community…or even challenging anything," Buffalo Hyde says. "I noticed there was a disconnect, and that was the impetus for me wanting to create art about what it's like to be Native."

Today, the 38-year-old Hyde works out of a basement studio he shares with his wife. As an artist and educator, Buffalo Hyde attempts to spur dialogue, but he's seen often as an antagonizer. Whereas he has experienced a high level of critique,—"They would tear your ass apart in white art schools"—art students, collectors and critics are sometimes afraid to criticize Native art because they don't want to offend the culture. Moreover, he thinks that Natives have been too cautious in approaching local galleries. "There are others who are talking about something bigger than themselves, something bigger than Native art, more international, but it will take the right curator and the right artist with thicker skin to withstand the BS," he says.

Where other critics and academics might see a huge difference between the aesthetic and influence of Buffalo Hyde's work and that of the average market booth artist, Lara Evans, a junior professor at Evergreen State University with a PhD in Native arts history, sees a similar opportunity to reinvigorate the notion that there's value in making things and making them meaningfully.

"The art world in general is hankering to use art to build up culture as part of science and philosophy, instead of engaging just with it as art…to build culture and build bridges between cultures," she says.

Starting with Materials

Currently occupying a grant-funded position at IAIA, Evans defines a contemporary Native artist simply as one who’s alive. However, she also refines the debate by pointing out that viewers tend to see traditional Native arts as commercial, while conceiving of contemporary Native arts as part of a larger critical dialogue.

SITE's Hofmann says that she wouldn't have been aware of the emphasis placed on traditional materials and methods in Native arts had she not been invited to jure the Indian Market Innovation Prize. She recognized the innovations only after SWAIA provided the framework in the form of a booklet defining the parameters of traditionalism.

"What I'm seeing—even in the small amount of time that I've looked at the work—is maybe some tension between the desire to hold onto and pass on these incredible techniques and traditions, and to preserve that, [versus] encourag[ing] the next generation to be innovators," Hofmann says.

In this context, Cannupahanska's work, which employs metal, yarn, foam and other nontraditional materials, is innovative for refusing to stay within traditional parameters, Hofmann says. And yet, according to Cannupahanska, he's also adhering to tradition. "Native Americans have always been hyped to new materials," he says. "If something came along and we could use it, we'd put it to use. If you want to stick with traditional values, I think work that uses everything is a lot more traditional."

Still, Evans sees the discussion about materials as an obstacle to seeing the work within a bigger context. “Conversations about materials are easier than what the work means or might mean,” she says, using Cannupahanska’s “UpKeep” as an example. The work depicts a bust with arms reaching for the sky, but instead of hands and fingers, tree branches reach out from the figure’s arms, and a house stands in place of its head. “You might consider the symbolism involved in the piece—the cosmological symbol of the tree and the symbolism of using a house for head, with blossoms not from head, but from the body. But if you start with materials, we’re missing the cosmological meaning of the head.”

Where to Plant

Whether or not materials constitute the pinnacle of debate for contemporary arts, Cannupahanska and Frank Buffalo are asking questions about the very nature of Native art, and audiences are responding. Cannupahanska has had multiple exhibitions over the last six months at Caldera Gallery, Eggman & Walrus Art Emporium, Ahalena Studios and GF Contemporary; Buffalo Hyde’s work recently hung in a solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Native Art. This suggests a renewed interest in the work, and Cannupahanska welcomes a debate on just about any level; he just wants it to be current and informed.

"A lot of people look to Native Americans…indigenous populations, to bridge the gap between the suburban, industrial way of life to this more return-to-nature aspect, but the fact of the matter is that 65-80 percent of our Native populations do not exist like that anymore," he says.

The question then becomes whether the artists themselves are up to the challenge of telling the story of where they are now—and then deciding to whom they want to tell it.

"As with any maker, any artist, there's really a decision to be made about who your audience is," Hofmann says. "If your audience is a collector of Native arts, then the goal is to get into Indian Market and to be represented by dealers of Native materials who can educate collectors and position the work in the best way. For some artists, their audience is someone who will pick up a book, and they want to get their work out by publishing a great book. A contemporary art audience…is very challenging to reach."

That audience is interested in "very powerful, socially engaged work," she says.

But their circles don’t always overlap. Hofmann, for example, is connected with the contemporary art world and with Santa Fe, but she has only begun to discover Indian Market.

And according to Abeyta, like other progressive and innovative artists, contemporary Native artists are leaving the galleries.

"The street art movement is most progressive since pop art or abstract expressionism," Abeyta says. "It's taking it back and giving it to everybody. That movement has been adopted into contemporary Native art."

Street artists like Basquiat and Banksy, he notes, also end up in galleries, with their works selling "for millions of dollars."

According to Evans, however, the critical dialogue taking place within the larger contemporary art scene may not be the goal for contemporary Native artists.

"Many audiences find that conversation alienating," she says. "For a viewing audience [that] has a whole other set of symbolic references, there's other layers of conversation going on."

The way an audience reacts, or the kind of audience an artist wants to attract, might help him define his work, but identity itself remains a central theme to the Native artist—whether he seeks it through traditional or contemporary means. His work itself asks whether he can represent his people and participate in contemporary American society. And while he might like for the rest of the world to take part in that conversation, the question remains more essential than the various answers—at least to the people doing the work.

 "I'm interested in what's happing in Native art because it's about who we are as a community, as a people in the world," Abeyta says. "When I identify myself as a Native American artist, I'm very much like, 'What is my contribution as a Native and as an artist?' Now, the contemporary discourse of Native art is even moreso concerned with [that question]. It's heading in really exciting directions."

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