New work by Native American and Alaska native artists on display at the Renwick Gallery

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New work by Native American and Alaska native artists on display at the Renwick Gallery
Lily Hope, Memorial Beats, 2021, thigh-spun merino and cedar bark with copper, headphones, and audio files, 16 x 4 x 10 in., The Hope Family Trust. Photo by Sydney Akagi.

WASHINGTON, DC.- “Sharing Honors and Burdens: Renwick Invitational 2023” focuses on fresh and nuanced visions by six contemporary Native American and Alaska Native artists who express the honors and burdens that connect people to one another. The exhibition features objects by Joe Feddersen (Arrow Lakes/Okanagan), Lily Hope (Tlingit), Ursala Hudson (Tlingit), Erica Lord (Athabaskan/Iñupiat), Geo Neptune (Passamaquoddy) and Maggie Thompson (Fond du Lac Ojibwe) that speak to the responsibility of ushering forward cultural traditions while shaping the future with innovative works of art. Their works are often culturally specific, yet they communicate across cultural boundaries. The 55 artworks in the exhibition arise from traditions of making that honor family, community or clan and require broad community participation.

The exhibition is on view from May 26 through March 31, 2024, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. It is organized by guest curator Lara M. Evans (Cherokee Nation), founding director of the Research Center for Contemporary Native Arts at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and current vice president of programs for First Peoples Fund, with Nora Atkinson, the Fleur and Charles Bresler Curator in Charge at the Renwick Gallery.

“It is a great honor to spotlight these artists from Alaska, Washington State, New Mexico, Minnesota and Maine at SAAM’s Renwick Gallery, the preeminent center for American craft in the United States,” said Stephanie Stebich, the Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “It is also a special burden of responsibility to showcase their artwork in a way that recognizes the past, present and future. As visitors experience groundbreaking craft from these makers, we invite them to embrace a more nuanced understanding of how Indigenous perspectives and experiences are shaping American art today.”

It is the first time that artists chosen for the Renwick Invitational are all Native Americans and Alaska Natives. All are members of separate sovereign nations: Tlingit and Haida Tribes of Alaska, Nenana Native Association, Wabanaki Confederacy, Okanagan Nation and Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. The artists were selected by a panel of distinguished jurors, including Evans; Miranda Belarde-Lewis (Zuni/Tlingit), independent curator and the Jill and Joe McKinstry Endowed Faculty Fellow of Native North American Indigenous Knowledge at the University of Washington’s iSchool; and Anya Montiel (Mexican/Tohono O’odham descent), curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

The exhibition includes 13 new artworks that were created within the past year in addition to three pieces the museum commissioned specifically for the exhibition: “Between Worlds (Child’s Robe)” by Hope, “Sister Bear” by Hudson and “The Codes We Carry” by Lord. The museum recently acquired Feddersen’s “Horses and Deer” and anticipates acquiring works by all of the featured artists for its permanent collection.

Making serves as not only a form of self-expression, but also a powerful way of processing everyday life and expressing ties to community. In doing so, each artist uses traditional forms of making—weaving, beading or sewing—and adapts the materials and techniques to create contemporary works of art. Individually, each craftsperson works in some manner with techniques, materials or concepts embedded within their tribe’s customary practices and history, but their work is also intended to engage with global audiences. Adding to the complexities of making are the unique decisions Native and Alaskan Native artists must often consider while creating, including balancing customary functional forms with beauty and personal narratives, determining which aspects are suitable to share with outside, non-Native audiences, and weighing the risks and benefits involved in adapting historical practices to new uses.

The artists in “Sharing Honors and Burdens: Renwick Invitational 2023” come from communities where making is an honored way of coming to know: for example, Feddersen is a printmaker, glass artist and basket maker who creates geometric patterns sourced from everyday life. Lord, a multimedia artist, crafts beaded burden straps and sled-dog blankets with abstracted representations of the diseases that disproportionately impact Native and other marginalized communities. Neptune is a master basket maker, activist and educator who uses colorful narratives to emphasize the honor and burden of keeping tradition alive. Hope and Hudson, who are sisters, weave labor-intensive textiles that convey Tlingit values of reciprocity and balance, maintaining cultural integrity while experimenting with new forms and materials. Thompson, a textile artist, creates large-scale works that explore the intersections of grief and trauma with honor, beauty and healing.

“In the summer of 2021, as Anya, Miranda and I discussed our selections, we found our way toward two related themes that link these artists’ practice and artwork: honors and burdens,” said Evans. “The artworks themselves make tangible the range of honors and burdens we carry with us, from the grief and trauma of personal and community loss to precious knowledge gained from teachers and ancestors. ‘Sharing Honors and Burdens’ helps us think about these ideas through beautifully crafted artworks, large and small, in stillness and in movement.”

A series of videos was produced for the exhibition, including an introductory video with guest curator Evans and six artist videos that focus on the artists in their studios produced by the Institute of American Indian Arts in collaboration with the museum. The videos are available on the museum’s YouTube channel and are part of the in-gallery presentation. Visitors are encouraged to reflect on the honors and burdens in their own lives via a response wall at the end of the exhibition.

Established in 2000, the Renwick Invitational showcases emerging and mid-career makers deserving of wider national recognition. “Sharing Honors and Burdens: Renwick Invitational 2023” is the 10th installment of the series. It is the latest example of the museum’s commitment to highlighting contemporary Native American artists and Indigenous voices through acquisitions and exhibitions.

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