POPular? Contemporary Native American Art at the Heard

What does it mean to be a 21st century Native? The question sounds weird. You pause after reading it, thinking, “Wait, that doesn’t sound right. What does that even mean?” We have long associated Native American with a primitive stereotype of the past. Yet, Native Americans are still here and a part of our 21st century culture. Author Sherman Alexie has poked fun at museums for their collections of pots and blankets, seeming to focus on the artifacts while ignoring the Indian. Unfortunately, it is usually hard to say that he is wrong.

In his semi-autobiographical work, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Alexie confronts some of the issues about what it means to be Native American in the present day. The Heard Museum has tried to do the same in POP! Popular Culture in American Indian Art, an exhibit it displayed in 2010-2011 and now features as a virtual exhibit on their website. (http://heard.org/pop/) Located in Phoenix Arizona, the Heard Museum is dedicated to educating people about the about the arts, heritage and life ways of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, with an emphasis on American Indian tribes of the Southwest. Promoting the presentation of first-person voices, you can definitely sense the ancestral in the contemporary pieces on display.

POP! explores how Native Americans have incorporated imagery from popular culture in their contemporary artwork. The combination of pop culture with traditional art forms and culture reflect some of the contemporary issues being faced by Native Americans. This multi-media exhibit featured objects by contemporary American Indian artists that ranged from jewelry, fashion, graffiti art, comics, to pottery and beadwork. Some early Pop Art, by artists such as Fritz Scholder and Andy Warhol, were also included to provide context.

A wide variety of artists were included. My personal favorite was ceramic artist Jason Garcia, a Santa Clara Pueblo. “Corn Maidens #13” is a hand-formed, slipped, and painted tiles. The dichotomy between the old and the new is obvious. The traditional dress stands in stark opposition to the digital cameras the young women are using. In this series, Garcia juxtaposes Native Americans in traditional dress against features of our modern life. These figures are leaning against cars, licking lollipops, or talking on cell phones with a casino in the background.

Geared towards a younger audience, the Heard did a good job of opening the museum to contemporary issues facing Native Americans. Although, the museum did play it safe. More controversial works by artist Ryan Singer could have been chosen. Maybe they would have had more room if they had not chosen to incorporate so many Warhol’s. For such strong pieces that speak for themselves, do they really need to be explained? Pop art conversations are between the artist and familiar images from the media. With such familiarity, the context these other pieces provided seems unnecessary and distracts from the pieces by American Indian artists.

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