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'Hearts of Our People,' landmark exhibit of native women artists, opens at Philbrook

'Hearts of Our People,' landmark exhibit of native women artists, opens at Philbrook


The words “Native American Art” may conjure up images of colorfully decorated ceramic vessels, expertly woven baskets or intricately beaded moccasins.

“For most people, when they think of native art, they first imagine what they think of those traditional or historic objects,” said Christina Burke, curator of Native American and Non-Western Art at the Philbrook Museum of Art. “And all these items were the work of native women. But for many years, they weren’t given the credit as creators.”

Making sure that the artistry and industry of Indigenous women artists throughout history is given its proper due is one of the purposes of the new exhibit that opens Wednesday, Oct. 7, at Philbrook.

“Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists” is a landmark overview of the art created by Indigenous women from the distant past to the present day. It features more than 100 objects spanning some 1,000 years and representing Indigenous tribes and nations from throughout the United States and Canada.

Burke said that there have been major museum exhibits that addressed the work of native women artists in the past, including the 2000 show “Anticipating the Dawn” at Oklahoma State University’s Gardiner Art Gallery, but those shows were only exhibited at one venue. “Hearts of Our People” is the first exhibit of its kind designed to travel, and its Philbrook engagement is the final stop on its two-year tour.

Burke said the curators also from the start knew it was important that the exhibit come to Oklahoma because of the state’s large and diverse population of native tribes and nations.

The exhibit, which was six years in the making, was organized by the Minneapolis Institute of Art and was co-curated by Jill Ahlberg Yohe, associate curator of Native American Art at MIA, and Teri Greeves, an independent curator and artist and member of the Kiowa Nation.

The curators worked with a 21-member, all-women Exhibition Advisory Board, which includes native and non-native scholars from across North America, as well as native artists, some of whose work is included in the exhibition and accompanying catalogue.

Burke was a member of the advisory board and said the curators’ decision to assemble such a team is emblematic of the uniquely collaborative process that went into the creation of this exhibit.

“I think the curators realized very early on that this was a way bigger project than they could tackle on their own,” Burke said. “I know that the general reaction to the idea of 21 women getting together to work on this project was ‘Good luck with that.’ But that spirit of collaboration and consensus — especially among women — is very much a part of native communities.”

The exhibit is organized around three main themes, which answer the question that served as the show’s impetus: Why do native women make art?

“Perhaps they created a particular object to honor a beloved family member,” Burke said. “Perhaps it was made to sell at market, to make money to feed her family. Perhaps she was making a political statement. And while many of the objects in this exhibit might be described as ‘craft,’ this show argues that the cultural aesthetic, the depth of knowledge and technical skill needed to create these pieces, prove that these works are just as complex and rich as anything labeled as ‘fine art.’”

One main theme concerns “Legacy,” which examines the ways native women artists use their art to honor the past, address the present and look to the future.

“Relationships” explores the bonds that exist beyond the human world to include animals, the weather, the earth and other entities the Western world does not often attribute with volition and agency. “Power” will encompass works created for diplomacy and influence, to empower others and oneself.

“By addressing these large themes, we as curators can organize these objects in ways that presents them in an unusual, unexpected light,” Burke said. “And in doing that, we are hoping to spark new conversations about issues that native people have continued to face throughout history.”

Objects in the exhibit include a wide range of media, from traditional crafts to cutting-edge contemporary art, including video work, contemporary attire, pottery, sculpture, installations and spoken word pieces.

One of the most striking items in the show is “Maria” by Rose B. Simpson, a completely rebuilt and re-imagined 1985 Chevrolet El Camino that mirrors the black-and-black pottery of Maria Martinez, the San Ildefonso Pueblo artist who popularized this style.

“This car was completely rebuilt — engine, transmission, everything,” Burke said. “Even the interior mixes black leather and black suede to continue that black-on-black theme. It will be installed in the garden area, and we’ve commissioned an artist to paint the outside of the car’s display case.”

Burke said the museum has recently reorganized and reinstalled the gallery areas in the Villa Philbrook, including two galleries devoted to the pottery of Martinez and her family.

Philbrook has also commissioned a number of Native American writers and poets, including U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, to record portions of their work that will be part of a “Poet’s Walk” through the garden.

One of the works that make up the “Poet’s Walk,” Tanaya Winder’s “Extraction,” a piece about missing and murdered Indigenous women, is also featured within the exhibit, paired with Rebecca Belmore’s “Fringe,” a large photograph of a young woman whose naked back appears to be sutured together with strings of red beads that resemble rivulets of blood.

“This pairing was something that we decided to do with our installation,” Burke said. “These are two such powerful works, that both speak so eloquently and viscerally about this issue. Granted, it’s a pretty heavy experience — which is why we placed a bench in front of the photograph. You almost need to sit down and take the time to take in these two works.”

In addition, the exhibit’s curators have given Philbrook permission to augment the show with selections from the museum’s extensive collection of American Indian art. Those objects were selected with the help of an advisory board made up of native women.

“Just as the original curators didn’t want to be the only people to select items for their show, I did not want to be the one voice — and a non-native voice at that — to choose what we would include in the exhibit,” Burke said.

One of the Oklahoma advisory board’s choices was Valjean Hessing’s painting “Choctaw Removal,” which is one of the first objects encountered in “Hearts of Our People.”

“Everyone said, if this show is coming to Oklahoma, we had to have something that addressed the forced removal of tribes to Oklahoma,” Burke said.

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