Philbrook Museum of Art opens groundbreaking exhibition of Native women artists

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Philbrook Museum of Art opens groundbreaking exhibition of Native women artists
Freda Diesing (Haida, 1925–2003). Mask, Old Woman with Labret , 1974. Alderwood, paint, hair, cedar bark, abalone, glass beads, moose hide, and bone or plastic, 13 × 9 1/2 × 4 3/4". Courtesy of the Royal BC Museum, RBCM15057. © Canadian Westcoast Art. Photo: Courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives.

TULSA, OKLA.- Philbrook Museum of Art presents Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists, the first major traveling exhibition exclusively devoted to Native women artists from all over the United States and Canada, ranging across time and media. Organized by the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) and developed in close cooperation with leading Native artists and scholars, the exhibition offers multiple perspectives to enhance understanding of Native art practices and the role of women in Native communities. Hearts of Our People will be on view in the Helmerich Gallery October 7, 2020 through January 3, 2021.

As the primary makers of ceramics, basketry, textiles, and bead- and quillwork in their communities, women have long been the creative force behind Native art; however, their significant cultural influences have often overlooked. Hearts of Our People not only helps visitors understand the many contributions of Native women artists not only to the domestic but also to the cultural, diplomatic, economic, and religious spheres of their own and other communities, but also goes beyond the longstanding convention of seeing these artworks as unattributed representations of entire cultures. The thematic organization of the exhibition highlights the intentionality of the artists, regardless of culture or media, focusing on the power of women’s creations across time.

The exhibition features more than 100 objects from c. 1000 BCE to the present day, including textiles, baskets, beadwork, and pottery, as well as painting, photography, sculpture, poetry, video, and installation art. The works are drawn from public and private collections across North America including the Smithsonian Institution, Mia, and Philbrook among many others.

“From the earliest discussions of this project several years ago, the co-curators knew it was important for the show to come to Oklahoma,” said Philbrook curator Christina E. Burke. “From Indigenous communities who have always been here to those forcibly removed from their traditional territories to individuals here for school or careers or family reasons, Oklahoma is home to many Native people.” In addition, works in the show shine a light on such contemporary issues as reservation boundaries, as in the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision of the McGirt case, the ongoing impact of resource extraction from Native lands, and the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women, known as MMIW.

The exhibition is co-curated by Jill Ahlberg Yohe, PhD, associate curator of Native American Art at Mia, and Teri Greeves, an independent curator and artist and member of the Kiowa Nation. During each step of the exhibition development process, the curators worked closely with an all-women Exhibition Advisory Board, which they established to provide knowledge and insights from a wide range of Nations and perspectives. The panel comprises 21 Native and non-Native scholars from across North America, including Philbrook curator Christina Burke, as well as Native artists, some of whose work is included in the exhibition and accompanying catalogue. The panel worked collaboratively to develop the major themes of the exhibition and advise on the objects selected, as well as to determine the structure and content of the catalogue, programming, and community engagement activities.

The Philbrook presentation of Hearts of Our People features objects from the Museum’s permanent collection selected in consultation with an all-women Oklahoma Advisory Board convened for this purpose. Members include: curator heather ahtone (Choctaw/Chickasaw), artist and educator Ruthe Blalock Jones (Peoria/Shawnee/Delaware), artist Anita Fields (Osage), artist/poet/educator Juanita Pahdopony (Comanche), artist/curator/editor America Meredith (Cherokee), and scholar Mary Jo Watson (Seminole).

The exhibition planning process began in 2014 with a question: Why do Native women make art? The curatorial team responded by organizing the exhibition into three core themes: Legacy, Relationships, and Power.

In Legacy, visitors will see ways in which Native women artists acknowledge their lineage while simultaneously addressing the present moment and speaking to the future. For example, Rose Simpson (b. 1983) customized her 1985 El Camino to evoke the distinctive black-on-black style of Pueblo pottery made famous decades ago by Maria Martinez (c. 1887–1980), paying homage to a traditional design, while also transforming the vehicle into an empowering and modern identity statement. One of Martinez’s large vessels from Philbrook’s collection will be in the exhibition gallery and the car, titled Maria, is displayed in the Philbrook Gardens where visitors can also experience a “poetry walk” with texts and audio of several poems by Native writers, including U.S. Poet Laureate and Muscogee (Creek) citizen Joy Harjo.

The second section, Relationships, presents examples of how bonds exist among human families, clans, and communities and beyond. This includes connections between humans and animals and plants in the natural world and with other entities in the spirit worlds that non-Native people do not typically recognize as having volition and agency. Métis artist Christi Belcourt (b. 1966) hopes that paintings like The Wisdom of the Universe (2014) will remind viewers of the interconnected nature of existence on this planet. The highly detailed depictions of an array of vegetation inhabited by small insects and birds (all of which are on Canadian endangered lists) evoke First Nations beadwork. Belcourt encourages viewers to see how interconnected we are with our environment, no matter where we live.

The third section, Power, includes works created for diplomatic, economic, political, and spiritual purposes, emphasizing that women have always had influence in these realms. Whether making gifts for trade in diplomatic negotiations or objects used in healing rituals, Native women and their creations are integral to all aspects of community life. Among the works in this section is a precise re-creation of the “Woman’s Nomination Belt,” a three-dimensional document commonly known as a wampum belt authorizing a Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) clan mother to nominate and guide the male leaders of her clan and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. The original belt is still in use and records government-to-government treaty agreements between the Haudenosaunee and the U.S.

“Native American art has long been a cornerstone of the collection at Philbrook, with over 5,000 objects from more than 200 culture groups. But Hearts of Our People has cast our collection in a new light: we now recognize that about 75% of our Native collection was made by women, many anonymous and many long overlooked. This exhibition shines a bright light on the powerful role women in Native cultures play—and have always played—in shaping their cultures and their communities,” says Rachel Keith, Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs. “We are thrilled to welcome visitors back to our galleries with such an important and timely exhibition.”

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