American Indian artists: 21st-century innovators


Maria Mingalone imagines an exhibit, and a world, that will comfortably compare a Pueblo parfleche bag to a Mondrian painting. She will build one at the Berkshire Museum.

Denise Markonish reaches to arctic Canada to find Inuit drawings that shake her with their force -- a picture of a shaggy slate-green monster holding a child on its knee, or a bleak scene of young boys playing nintendo. She will bring them to Mass MoCA the United States' first large-scale survey of contemporary Canadian art.

This summer in the Berk shires, American Indian art ists from across the continent comment on the world around them with controlled beauty and humor. And museums will challenge people to feel the power of their work.

A parfleche bag is a carry-all made from a folded strip of stiff leather to hold ritual elements or food or gear. Many western museum exhibits would talk about it as a tool with decoration, as opposed to an innovative use of material with a sophisticated geometric design and color, Mingalone said.

"Rather than looking at historic material alone, as artifacts, as though they are static and from a people long gone, we are presenting work as evolving expressions of culture," she said. "People are making them, here and now."

Mingalone, Berkshire Mu seum's director of interpretation, is co-curating "Rethink," an exhibit of American Indian artwork, with Margaret Arch uleta, of Pueblo descent, former director of the Institute of American Indian in Santa Fe, N.M., and former curator at the Heard Museum of Amer ican Indian Art and History in Pheonix, Ariz. "Rethink" will open July 12.

"We're challenging ourselves all the time," Minga lone said. "It's not that people made these things -- people make these things. We're bring ing in the present tense."

So she and Archuleta have gathered a group of artists who draw on their backgrounds as Mohawk, Pueblo, Choctaw, Kiowa, Tlingit, Chey enne and Passama quaddy -- from New York, the Pacific Northwest, the South west, the central mountains and the east coast. Some have roots in several places at once. In their art, they draw on their families, landscapes and technologies, and all the elements of their daily lives.

"They are talking for themselves," Mingalone said.

She explained with care that the museum wants to celebrate these artists for their power, and to celebrate the history of their nations, without labelling them as "Indian" artists; people are too often limited by categories, she said, but an American Indian artist is as free to create any kind of work as a New York artist, for example. In "Rethink," Niioieren "Niio" Perkins, a Mohawk Bear Clan beadworker from Akwesasne, N.Y., is both.

So Diego Romero makes ceramic vessles in the style of the Cochiti Pueblo -- with mound builders listening to iPods, or piling up used cars -- or centers comic book figures in his black and white designs.

Artists and cousins Annie Pootoogook and Shuvinai Ash oona are leading a revolution in Inuit art with simple tools.

Their brightly colored drawings show life in Nunavut, in northern Canada: in colored pencil, a woman kneels to cook a round, tent-like room, while her family sleep around her.

Markonish, curator at Mass MoCA, learned of their work in her five-year quest to create "Oh, Canada." Their drawings will join more than 100 works by 62 artists in the show, which will open May 26.

Pootoogook and Ashoona lead a movement across the northern edge of the country.

In the early 1950s, Mark onish explained, a Toronto artist and writer, James Hous ton, started artist co-ops among arctic communities. The co-op would supply materials and buy work from the artists, and bring portfolios of work to galleries in the south. Annie Pootoogook's mother and grandmother be came artists.

"Annie's mother revolutionized contemporary Inuit art," Markonish said, "by depicting not just ritual and nature but the hardness of life up north -- the alcoholism and abuse."

Both artists in Mass MoCA's show carry on her work -- and her willingness to lay bare sources of pain. In Feheley Gallery in Toronto, Markonish saw one of Shuvinai's drawings of teenage boys holding limp bodies; it is called "Carrying suicidal people." The teen suicide rate among Inuit communities is high.

"Annie draws when she is unhappy," Markonish added; "Shuvinai draws all the time."

Pootoogook and Ashoona grew up thinking of artist as a practical profession and as a way to keep straight, she said, to make a living in a dark, cold place where people are thinly scattered.

Markonish has traveled to within 20 miles of the arctic circle in the Yukon, on her search for Canadian artists, before a snow drift closed the road. The remoteness has a weight to it, she said, even beyond the open spaces in the American west.

"The light is different. The air is different," she said.

What: 'Oh, Canada' show, 62 artists across the nation

Where: Mass MoCA, North Adams

When: Opening May 26


What: "Rethinking,' 21st-century American Indian Art

Where: Berkshire Museum

When: Opening July 14



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