Groundbreaking survey examines performance and objecthood in Native North American Contemporary Art
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Groundbreaking survey examines performance and objecthood in Native North American Contemporary Art
Installation view of Indian Theater. Photo: Olympia Shannon 2023.

ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, NY .- The Center for Curatorial Studies’ Hessel Museum of Art presents the first major exhibition to center performance as an origin point for the development of contemporary art by Native American, First Nations, Métis, Inuit, and Alaska Native artists. Curated by leading scholar and curator Candice Hopkins (Carcross/Tagish First Nation), Indian Theater: Native Performance, Art, and Self-Determination since 1969 traces the history of experimentation that emerged in the late 1960s and continues to inform the practice of Native artists today. The exhibition brings together over 100 works by over 40 artists and collectives, including new commissions and performances by Rebecca Belmore (Anishinaabe), Nicholas Galanin (Tlingit/Unangax̂), Jeffrey Gibson (Mississippi Band of Choctaw and Cherokee), Maria Hupfield (Anishnaabe, Wasauksing First Nation/Canada), and Eric-Paul Riege (Diné).

On view from June 24 through November 26, 2023, Indian Theater is part of a sweep of initiatives at Bard College to place Indigenous Studies at the heart of curricular innovation and development, including the appointment of Hopkins as CCS Bard’s inaugural Fellow in Indigenous Art History and Curatorial Studies.

“This exhibition marks a critical contribution to contextualizing contemporary Indigenous art as part of a larger artistic movement whose history has been understudied and overlooked,” said Tom Eccles, Executive Director of the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, and Founding Director of the Hessel Museum of Art. “This groundbreaking presentation at the Hessel Museum provides a new framework for the interpretation of Indigenous contemporary art, a field of study that we look forward to continuing to advance with new research and curatorial innovation.”

“This exhibition takes its impetus from a modest, yet significant document: Indian Theatre: An Artistic Experiment in Process, published by the Institute for American Indian Arts (IAIA) in 1969. The treatise was the first to attempt to define ‘New Native’ theater, ushering in a new way of framing the long practice of performance in Indigenous societies across Turtle Island; they were also creating a template for its future,” stated Hopkins. “Inspired by this document, the exhibition, Indian Theater is attuned to the intersections between objects, performance—in its expanded forms—film and video, and visual sovereignty in Native North American contemporary art.”

Taking a broad scope to examine the history of Native contemporary art through the lens of performance, the exhibition engages notions of object and agency, sound and instrumentation, dress and adornment, and the body and its absence. The presentation begins chronologically and cites the 1969 document, Indian Theatre: An Artistic Experiment in Process, published by the IAIA.

Featured is early documentation of IAIA theater performances, along with recently digitized footage of Spiderwoman Theater’s (Lisa Mayo, Gloria Miguel, and Muriel Miguel (all Rappahannock and Kuna)) evocatively titled 1978–1980 play Cabaret: An Evening of Disgusting Songs and Pukey Images, available for viewing for the first time since its original debut. The longest running theater group in the United States, Spiderwoman Theater emerged from the feminist movement of the 1970s and the disillusionment with the treatment of women in radical political movements of the time. Cabaret reflects the group’s contribution to the national dialogue on gender in its critique and satirization of how women are often made to swallow male platitudes about love and its challenges to homogenizing images of women.

The exhibition progresses with a survey of film, video, performance, sculpture, painting, drawing, and beadwork that at once pay homage to the legacy of innovative Native aesthetic traditions and this continuing tradition of experimentation and performativity. Jeffrey Gibson’s commission responds directly to the 1969 treatise, Indian Theatre, with a new performance, an arced choreography that centers music and oration. White Carver, an installation and performance by Nicholas Galanin features a non-Native carver engaged in carving a surprising object, one that might initially seem like a customary item in the vein of Northwest Coast Native American art. Galanin reconceives traditional carving practices, including the ways in which many Native carvers on the Northwest coast publicly perform their craft to a non-Native public, to confront the history of colonial fetishization of Indigenous cultures and objects. Another performance features artist Eric-Paul Riege as he engages with a series of soft sculptures of oversized pairs of Diné earrings. Over his day-long durational performance, his suspended sculptures are activated and sounded, becoming an extension of the artist’s body and Diné cosmology.

Installed on the exterior of the Hessel Museum of Art, Force of Labour (ongoing) – is a monumental new work (17 x 30 ft) that blankets the Museum’s façade with worker’s coveralls. Installed to mirror the dimensions of a flag, the work questions the colonial impulses behind gestures of nationhood or sovereignty and their histories of labor exploitation and territorial claims. Belmore’s performance Saw Kill (2023) begins with performers gathering at the eponymous creek and walking together in a procession, carrying creek water and clay for the making of a monument on the grounds of the Hessel Museum in front of the installation.

Also on view are works by artists including KC Adams (Métis); asinnajaq (Inuk); Sonny Assu (Ligwiłda'xw Kwakwaka'wakw from Wei Wai Kum Nation); Natalie Ball (Klamath/Modoc); Rick Bartow (Wiyot); Bob Boyer (Métis); Dana Claxton (Lakota); Theo Jean Cuthand (Plains Cree, Scottish, Irish); Ruth Cuthand (Plains Cree, Scottish, Irish, Canadian); Beau Dick (Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgamakw Dzawada’enuxw First Nation); Demian DinéYahzi’ (Diné); Rosalie Favell (Métis (Cree/ British); Jeneen Frei Njootli (Vuntut Gwitchin, Czech and Dutch); Ishi Glinsky (Tohono O'odham); Raven Halfmoon (Caddo); Gabrielle L'Hirondelle Hill (Métis); Sky Hopinka (Ho-Chunk Nation/Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians); Matthew Kirk (Navajo/Diné); Kite (Oglala Sioux Tribe); Linda Lomahaftewa (Hopi/Choctaw); Cannupa Hanska Luger (Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota); Tanya Lukin Linklater (Alutiiq/Sugpiaq); James Luna (Payómkawichum, Ipai, and Mexican); Rachel Martin (Tlingit/Tsaagweidei, Killer Whale Clan, of the Yellow Cedar House (Xaai Hit’) Eagle Moiety); Kent Monkman (Cree member of Fisher River Cree Nation in Treaty 5 Territory, Manitoba); Audie Murray (Métis); Lloyd Kiva New (Cherokee); New Red Order (Adam Khalil (Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians); Zack Khalil (Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians); Jackson Polys (Tlingit); Jessie Oonark (Inuk); Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (Salish member of the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Nation); Walter Scott (Kahnawá:ke); Spiderwoman Theater (Lisa Mayo, Gloria Miguel, and Muriel Miguel (all Rappahannock and Kuna)); Charlene Vickers (Anishinaabe); Kay WalkingStick (Citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and Anglo); Marie Watt (Seneca and German-Scot); Dyani White Hawk (Sičangu Lakota); and Nico Williams (Anishinaabe).

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