True identity 

"Fellowship for Native American Fine Art
Eiteljorg Museum
Through Feb. 10

For the past 10 years, the Eiteljorg Museum has done much to shatter one particularly tenacious stereotype: that Native American art is about decoration and/or function, but not ideas. Through its biennial Fellowship for Native American Fine Art, now in its fifth iteration, the museum has provided a forum for introducing contemporary art by Native American artists on their own terms — which is to say, as art, first and foremost.

When the museum opened its Fellowship exhibition last weekend, in addition to the current five fellows, artists from past fellowships gathered in Indianapolis to celebrate the program’s success and impact. Certainly, there’s much to be proud of. Contemporary art by Native Americans has evolved a following outside of Native American circles, and institutions such as the Eiteljorg, along with the efforts of individual artists and other activists, have done much to move things forward. And yet, Native American artists still deal with a subtle form of marginalization: the notion that their work is somehow separate, a curiosity that, with a handful of exceptions, speaks to a relative few.

A visit to the current Fellowship reiterates that this is clearly not the case. This year’s fellows — Dana Claxton (Lakota), Gerald Clarke (Cahuilla), Larry McNeil (Tlingit/Nisgaá), Sonya Kelliher-Combs (Inupiaq /Athabascan), William Wilson (Diné) and this year’s distinguished artist, James Luna (Luiseño) — offer more than 45 works of art ranging in media from photography, installation, DVD, printmaking, painting and drawing. The best contemporary art has a point of view while retaining aesthetic quality. All offerings fit this bill: from Sonya Kelliher-Combs’ haunting paintings comprised of stretched walrus stomach and her installation “Idiot Strings” (made from walrus intestines) to James Luna’s performance and installation pieces that explore Native American history and identity in the context of the dominant European-derived culture.

But what we manage to forget, over and over again, is the cost of that dominant culture, and Native American artists, like all artists, are those who reveal our true nature, and what is lost, and what is gained. As curator Jennifer Complo McNutt maintains, “Indigenous artists bring to their contemporary expressions over 10,000 years of history, language, memory, politics, humor and connection.”

Fellow Larry McNeil, who uses humor to draw attention to Native American and mainstream American identity — in some works pitting Tonto against photographer Edward Curtis — writes, “If we look into our American melting pot, I think we’d see a muddled mess of myth and history with the myth scorched permanently onto the bottom, flavoring everything else.” Native American art is, after all, American art: the original and perhaps most authentic exploration of this country’s identity.

The 2007 Eiteljorg Fellowship for Native American Fine Art exhibition is on view at the Eiteljorg Museum through Feb. 10, 2008. Call 317-636-WEST or visit for more information.


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