It may have been a stupid question, but I had to ask. "Why," I said to Jennifer Complo McNutt, curator of contemporary art at the Eiteljorg, "has the Eiteljorg been able to make such a name for itself in the world of contemporary Native American art within the past 25 years? There are plenty of other museums out there, after all, some of them with 'contemporary' in their name."
"Well, what do you think?" she sort of retorted, before giving me something to quote her on: "Historically, native people haven't always been treated with the same kind of respect as others in our country, so maybe that's a reflection of that situation. And people have refused to believe that something that doesn't look Indian is an authentic representation. There is nothing more beautiful than a beautiful clay pot or an incredibly woven traditional work of art. But why wouldn't native people living in a contemporary society have the same kind of expressions as everyone else!"
Since 1999, the Eiteljorg, which bills itself has having the "world's foremost collection of contemporary Native American art," has awarded $1,125,000 in unrestricted grants through its Contemporary Art Fellowship. This year's five fellows will each receive a $25,000 grant and take part in an exhibition opening this weekend. The museum also typically purchases works of art by each fellow for its permanent collection.
"For so long, native artists have had to create within parameters imposed by curators, ethnologists or collectors," says Shan Goshorn, one of this year's fellows. "The Eiteljorg is really encouraging people to go beyond that, to challenge perceptions, to challenge the way that we have been defined."
Goshorn has worked across media for 30 years; Complo McNutt says she first encountered her as a painter and photographer. But she's recently spent much of her time creating "political baskets," which weave together archival and original photos and documents — for instance, a photograph of the Great Smoky Mountains and a historical map of Cherokee territory. "I'm able to bring ideas to the table and my work becomes exactly what I'd hoped it would be for three decades: a springboard for honest discussion," she says.
If Goshorn gradually came to incorporate traditional practices into her work after she had established herself, Nicholas Galanin started out working alongside traditional artists, learning wood and stone sculpting from his father and uncle. He continues to create such "customary" objects alongside more obviously contemporary work in sculpture, photography and video.
One photo series, Where Will We Go, shows a red-white-and-blue neon sign, "No Indians or Dogs Allowed," in the middle of a seemingly uninhabited forest. Galanin says the piece was based on a sign that existed in his hometown of Sitka, Alaska "within the last two generations."