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Contemporary Indigenous Perspectives in Art

Hearts of Our People - Relationships

Women have long been the creative force behind Native art. Presented in close cooperation with top Native women artists and scholars, Hearts of our People is the first major traveling exhibition of artwork by Indigenous women of the past and present, honoring the achievements of over 100 artists from the United States and Canada spanning over 1,000 years. Their triumphs—from pottery, textiles, and painting, to photographic portraits, —show astonishing innovation and technical mastery.

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While many Euro-Americans are familiar with ancient Indigenous art (cave paintings, for example), there are tremendous gaps in Euro-American historical art texts and institutional collections of Indigenous communities’ continued creations post European contact. Indigenous people preserve their culture throughout the ages by passing down knowledge to their descendants through story and, notably, by using their hands to create evocative, beautiful examples of traditional material culture. As noted, traditional Native languages often did not have a specific word for “art,” even though Indigenous people have always created what colonial language labels as such. Generally speaking, Indigenous perspectives on art are that it is integrative, inclusive, practical, and constantly evolving. It seems there is no past or present terminology that can thoroughly define Indigenous art with respect to the diversity of the hundreds of Native Nations and their traditions.

Traditional Indigenous handmade creations vary among individual tribal cultures, from beadwork and clothing to metalwork, pottery, basketmaking, feather weaving, carving, gourd painting, and quillwork. Today, many Indigenous artists continue these material traditions, expanding their individual and cultural expression using  both traditional and contemporary media, from quilting to sculpting, cornhusk doll making to filmmaking, writing, dance, theater, comedy, painting, drawing, digital work, and more. Today, take time to explore the diversity of Indigenous creativity  portrayed in the works of this exhibit’s  featured artists.

Scholars point out that although women are responsible for most Native work in national collections, Native women artists have been largely unacknowledged outside of their communities. As a response to this historic inequity, Indigenous Appalachia exhibit will center and celebrate women’s perspectives. Traditional Indigenous perspectives situate gender roles as complementary and balanced rather than hierarchical. In recent decades, American institutionalized exhibits have tokenized female artists. This bias is reflected in the way Indigenous women’s cultural expressions have been categorized and discussed in Native North American museums since collecting practices expanded in the 19th century.