“Hearts of Our People” co-curators talk about the exhibit

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“Valise: Nellie Two Bear Gates,1903. (Photo courtesy the Minneapolis Institute of Art.)

By Deborah Locke

In 2014, an advisory committee to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts met to start work on an exhibition devoted to American Indian women artists. Committee members included Native women artists and Native and non-Native scholars from a broad range of nations.
Historically, the work of native female artists is anonymous, and regarded as representative of all American Indians. To remedy those omissions, co-curators Teri Greeves and Jill Ahlberg Yohe traveled the U.S. reviewing public and private art collections and thousands of works of art. After the difficult process of selection, 115 objects were selected, including photography, beadwork, quillwork, 19th-20th Century textiles, pottery from the 11th Century to today, and media including 18th Century painted hides. We asked co-curators Greeves and Yohe a few questions about this groundbreaking exhibit that runs through Aug. 28, 2019.

DL: When did the idea for an American Indian women’s exhibit surface, who had it, and how long has it taken to reach this point?

Teri: I’m Kiowa from Oklahoma, and I grew up on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, where my mother had a trading post on the Shoshone side of the reservation. Basically I came home in beadwork – my mother had a cradleboard made for me before I was born and that is how I arrived in my home.

I grew up in that trading post surrounded by Native art and, as we know, much of our stuff is made by women. Women were coming in and selling things to my mother, and I knew from an early age that our women were the ones who made artwork because I demonstratively saw that. And while that may not have been where the idea for the exhibition started, I grew up understanding that Native American art is made by and large by Native women. The canons – beadwork, textiles, pottery, basketry, ceramics – are mediums held by women through women’s knowledge, even if men are doing them. I think a lot of Native people understand that as well.

So, much later on when I met Jill, she made this proposal to do this exhibition about Native American women’s art through time and place, and I immediately agreed to do it. Then I became concerned because as a Kiowa person, I know I don’t have any rights to speak for Anishinaabe people, to speak for Lakota people, to speak for Navajo people, to speak for Seminole people, or any of the other Nations across North America. So it was important to me from the get-go that we have a committee of Native women’s voices to help us understand what we were doing. That is how I agreed to and ended up approaching this exhibition.

Jill: I came to art museums late. I was trained as a cultural anthropologist working with communities. When I went into collections and realized all the work I was seeing was done by Native women, I was stunned by the fact that I had never seen an exhibition that had acknowledged this explicitly. I always wondered why that was the case, and why there wasn’t acknowledgement of that in any literature. I thought a show like this would be important for many reasons.

“December 5, 2016: No Spiritual Surrender” by Zoe Urness, 2016.

DL: Isn’t art art? By that I mean, if men were included in the exhibit, would it be essentially the same exhibit? How does gender impact artistic expression?

Teri: As I said before, I grew up in this trading post surrounded by artists who were by and large women. The women are the holders of the traditional mediums we work in. If you want to learn beadwork, you go to grandmas, your aunties, your mother – these are the people who are generally the bead workers in our community. There is no way this exhibition would be the same if it was a men’s exhibition. While men practice these mediums, it is the women who hold them and continue to hold them in their communities.
Because women hold this knowledge, gender absolutely has an impact on artistic impression. How to work with the materials, what the materials mean, the communication that you’re having as you’re gathering or harvesting, as you’re tanning hides or gathering clay, or whatever you’re doing, that sort of interaction that happens with the materials themselves is something that you slowly learn as you help your mothers, as you help your grandmothers. You understand your relationship with the materials, which is all part of a much broader knowledge system that is handed down through females to our people.

DL: How did the collection of art all end up in one room? Do you call other galleries to see if they have women’s art? Do you call individual artists? Do you ask for original and new work? 

Jill: We drew upon the expertise of 21 board members who have been with us from the onset of the exhibition. Through a convening in 2014, we were able to develop an exhibition that explored major themes of why Native women make art, and we asked our advisory board which works of art were essential for telling this story. The work in the exhibition comes from Mia’s collection, as well as private collections and institutions around the US and Canada.

DL: Since the women artists are all from different tribes, can you see a thematic difference in the work? 

Teri: There isn’t a thematic difference between tribes. I would say to think about the materials and the medium of the environment that the people come from as the difference, instead of thematically. If you’re up here around the lakes, there’s a lot of wood, so things are made of wood. When you’re in the Southwest, there’s no wood down there – there’s dirt, there’s clay, and so lots of things are made of clay. You see this all over the country – material like abalone and wampum, the things that become valuable in these communities and that are related to the land. So, I don’t know that it’s a thematic difference because it’s not based on themes. It’s based on worldview and world perspective, and our origin stories of where we come from. That is partially what drives these women to create and to share and to give that knowledge to the next generation.

Jill: I also think that one of the things you see throughout the course of the exhibition is the range of materials Native women have used through thousands of years and the Nation-to-Nation exchange that has happened for millennia. You see Native women artists being inspired by both materials from their community and their area but also materials that come from far away, creating art in different ways or similar ways.

DL: What can non-Indians learn about American Indians from this exhibit? 

Teri: The main take-away is – and this is kind of Indian 101 stuff – but obviously, there are many different types of Native American nations in the United States. We vary as differently as a person from China differs from someone from Germany. Our languages are different, our histories are different, and all of that. But in a basic way, non-Indian people don’t understand that there are differences between us. Some of them don’t even realize that we still exist. So, number one – the contemporary art, the very contemporary art that is in this exhibition tells you that we are still here, we are actively engaged with this world, and we are going to be here into the future.

Also, I would say that there are many different Native American nations in North America, Central America, and South America, and so lumping us all together as Native Americans is part of the stereotyping thing that happens – as part of some broader agenda of erasure. This exhibition hopefully counters those two things.

And finally, I would say that what is unknown is how incredibly important Native women are in our communities – how they are the leaders, how we are educated on how we see ourselves, how we place ourselves, our morals, our ethics, our spiritual lives, all of that in part comes through our mothers and is expressed through the art that they create. It is those worlds that they create for us that tell us who we are. We hope this exhibition helps non-Native people understand how important our women are, how incredibly honored they are within our communities, and how we don’t exist without them.

DL: Who determines how the final exhibit looks?

We drew upon the major exhibition themes (Legacy, Relationships, Power) that were created by the advisory board and ongoing conversations that we had with the board, as well as working design-wise with the actual spaces, which is about nine rooms. Each theme has at least two gallery spaces devoted to articulating the core themes of the exhibition. And one of the things we wanted to do was show the diversity of materials and communities, and to show the continuum of Native women’s art so you can see the variety, the similarities, the continuity, the contrasts, as well as the major themes.