"The Eiteljorg Fellows’ show

The biennial Fellowship for Native American Fine Art show is on again at the Eiteljorg Museum. It’s the fifth time over a 10-year span that the Eiteljorg’s curator of contemporary art, Jennifer Complo McNutt, has led a process that identifies, exhibits and collects work by leading North American Indian artists. The Eiteljorg Fellows’ show is always a big deal, the kind of show where you tell people, if you only see one contemporary art show in the next 12 months, make it this one.

And the 2007 model is no exception.

Once again, five artists have been selected as Fellows, plus one, in this case James Luna, honored as Distinguished Artist. They come from as far away as Alaska and hail from tribes with names many of us have never heard of: Cahuilla, Inupiaq, Dine. Their chosen artforms include installations, photography, four-channel DVD, printmaking and painting.

The Fellows shows have never failed to inspire me. The work on offer is consistently elegant and knowing, and, like all truly great contemporary art, loaded with strategies, both visible and implicit, for coming to grips with the world we live in. Politics, humor, memory, righteous anger and the unflinching gaze are all deployed here. But this is to be expected from artists, no matter who they are or where they come from. There’s an added dimension in the work of indigenous artists, though, that’s missing in most of the contemporary art I experience. Let’s call it spiritual.

This spirituality has to do with bone-deep knowledge of ancestral continuities, a cyclical understanding of time and a living sense of place. The result is an American art most American artists only seem to dream about.

This is what hit me when I found myself standing in front of one of Will Wilson’s magisterial photographs from his “Auto Immune Response” series. In these large-scale pieces, Wilson photographs himself in post-apocalyptic landscapes. These are real scenes from imaginary westerns that are, at once, dreadful, satiric and gorgeous — a survivor’s testament.

Wilson’s art uses specific information about landscape, loneliness and Wilson himself to make an epic statement. Wilson’s Native American heritage is a piece of this information. It adds resonance to what we see. Perhaps it plays a part — or is even central — to Wilson’s creative strategy, his reason for being an artist. But the fact that a middle-aged white man who grew up in the Chicago suburbs and lives in Indianapolis can be moved by this work not only speaks to Wilson’s universality, it begs a question:

What’s keeping more artists from making work like this?

I would like to submit here that those spiritual elements I referred to earlier as setting the works of many indigenous artists apart are not possessions available to indigenous artists only. Anyone can have a deep sense of where they come from. The interesting thing is that so few of us actually do. Take, for example, those of us who live in Indiana.

For starters, Indiana has a history, but you’d be hard-pressed to find it in many of the works produced by our artists. Oh, there’s plenty of nostalgia, but nostalgia has less to do with trying to understand the past than with concealing it. Nostalgia is like comfort food: It pads reality with a sweet layer of reassurance.

An Indiana art that tried to deal with the history of this place would be informed by the knowledge that less than 200 years ago this was a largely woodland place. That, after driving out the indigenous peoples already living here, settlers cleared the land for farming that gave way to manufacturing that, today, is giving way to sprawling suburbs built with houses that fewer and fewer of us seem able to afford.

This, then, is a state based less on history than on forgetting. No wonder our leaders emphasize the importance of “change” so much. As long as I’ve lived here, I‘ve been hearing how Indiana has to learn to deal with, accept or manage change. But change, whether it’s the bull-dozing of a field for a housing development, the expansion of a hog farm or the building of a new highway, seems to happen here on a regular basis. It seems there’s no square foot of this state that can’t be bought. This is what we’ve made of our culture — we call it progress.

The irony, of course, is that in this “land of Indians,” the colonizers have wound up being colonized. After having done our best to wipe Indian culture off the map, we’re the ones trying to remember the stories about who we really are. We’re the ones with a cultural deficit.

If you doubt this, visit the Eiteljorg Fellows’ show, Diversity and Dialogue, between now and Feb. 10. You’ll see what art by people with a real culture looks like.

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