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After Work: You’ll Find No Baskets At This Show Of Native American Art

…Dustinn Craig’s video shows us the Apache skateboarders. He writes, “Apache kids with skateboards live dreams so large they will never dare to tell anyone. Yet those dreams get a little smaller each year…” The video is entitled, “Four-wheel Warpony.” …

Dona Gibbs visits an exhibition of contemporary American Indian art which shatters preconceptions.

Warning. Any preconceived notions about contemporary American Indian art should be checked at the door.

“ Remix”, the National Museum of American Indian’s current exhibit at the George Gustave Heye Center in lower Manhattan, is a challenging show.

The subtitle is equally challenging, “New Modernities in a Post-Indian World.” That’s just in case you didn’t know what you were in for and might be expecting feathers and beads.

The curators, Joe Baker and Gerald McMaster, both of Native American ancestry and tribal members, chose a hip-hop term “Remix” to suggest what is in store for the viewer.

Baker, in his essay for the show’s catalogue, quotes Fab Five Freddy’s remix definition as “take a bit from here and a bit from there and bring them all together…yet not forgetting history.

“Why,” Baker writes, “are indigenous artists not allowed to celebrate the present as other artists do?”

Fifteen works were chosen from native artists from Canada, the United States and Mexico. They are as diverse as their creators. Each one bashes a stereotype. Here are but a few examples.

There’s the beautiful “Portrait in Motion”, a film in which Nadia Myre shows a canoeist paddling toward us on a mist filled lake. The ah-ha moment comes in reading the catalogue description that the canoe is half traditional construction and half aluminum.

Franco Mondini Ruiz also explores this half-half analogy. He decapitates small china figurines of the type that no proper 1950s American grandmother would be without. In place of the delicate Marie Antoinette hairdos and wigs, he has attached molded clay pre-Columbian figures.

Luis Gutierrez uses the bright colors of traditional folk art, yet his work encompasses darker themes, such as his struggle with multiple sclerosis. Hector Ruiz’s carvings explore what it means to be living on the margins of the mainstream. They pieces call to mind “outsider” art.

Dustinn Craig’s video shows us the Apache skateboarders. He writes, “Apache kids with skateboards live dreams so large they will never dare to tell anyone. Yet those dreams get a little smaller each year…” The video is entitled, “Four-wheel Warpony.”

There’s a haunting series of photographs by Brian Miller. These explore a strange relationship between a beautiful hitchhiker and the photographer.

“So what’s so Indian about that,” you may mutter.

The answer is, it isn’t. After all this is about artists stretching beyond traditional expectations of what today’s Indian is or may become.

While the casual visitors could stroll though and “get it,” they might leave with a question, “Huh? What was that all about?”

My suggestion: buy the catalogue and sit in the light drenched, white marble rotunda and read it. The exhibition will be a richer experience, although no less challenging.

The George Gustav Heye Museum is an example of a museum that’s reinvented itself. From its founding in 1922 by Heye, a wealthy New York financier, it’s had its up and downs. Until 1994 the collection was displayed and housed in the upper reaches of Manhattan and in a facility in the Bronx that was open only to scholars.

Heye had amassed over 800,000 objects, some perhaps by less than honest means. Many of the items held religious significant for the tribes from which had produced them. Skulls, bones and war-trophy scalps were blatantly offensive to newly sensitized museum goers and Native Americans alike.

Native Americans had become more critical in how they were portrayed in popular culture. More importantly, they became outspoken in their views on their continued oppression, which came to a head during the early 1970s. The standoff at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, and the occupation of the old Federal prison at Alcatraz were front-page news in North American.

Worrisome economic realties loomed. Funding for the New York Museum of the American Indian was tough to find, and it was obvious that the City couldn’t foot the bill.

H. Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire, offered $70 million. He wanted to move it to Texas. New Yorkers were outraged. True, they’d last seen the museum on a fourth grade class trip, but who knows, they might just get back one day.

The idea was floated that the museum should merge with another New York institution, The American Museum of Natural History.

Then the Smithsonian stepped in with another idea. They’d make the old Federal Custom House available for part of the collection with specialized exhibits while other permanent exhibits and special exhibitions would be showcased in brand-new facilities. One was planned for the Mall in Washington. DC, and yet another, a cultural resources center, was to be built in Suitland, Maryland.

The new Washington museum, the centerpiece of the National Museum of the American Indian, opened with great fanfare in 2004 after five years and $219 million in construction costs.

The building of the new museum was only one phase. Moving the art and anthropological articles took careful planning. They were irreplaceable and fragile.

The objects also had to be researched. A team of four people began the task in 1994. Many of the over 800,000 objects had been stored in a warehouse and had not been seen for years. The result was that over 2,000 objects that were deemed especially significant to tribes, either human remains or sacred items, were returned to 100 different native communities.

Ancestors’ remains could be buried. Religious objects were restored to those who saw them more than curiosities of the past.

The institution reached out to Native Americans -- tribal leaders, community activists, artisans and artists, scientists and scholars to remake the museum.

The dust was shaken off. The air was cleared.

That spirit has continued. And it’s obvious at Remix.

What’s the price of this glimpse into contemporary “Post-Indian” art? It’s free.

Reporter note: New York City is enjoying a record number of visitors this summer from Europe and Asia. While the Empire State Building, the Staten Island Ferry and the Statue of Liberty are on everybody’s lists, there are treasures, easily accessible to visitors that are not as well known but also worthwhile. The National Museum of the American Indian in the Old Federal Customs Building is such a place.


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