Native American art immediately brings to mind a particular type of imagery.
But Native American art isn’t confined to the past. A modern crop of contemporary artists are creating daring, dazzling pieces.
“We’re really fulfilling a different perspective than the one people come in the door with,” said Jennifer Complo McNutt, curator for contemporary art at the Eiteljorg Museum. “For many people, just finding out that Native cultures are thriving is a surprise. They still make baskets and blankets and pots, but they also make very contemporary expressions. They really want to express themselves personally.”
For the past 23 years, the Eiteljorg Museum has celebrated and supported contemporary Native American artists. The Eiteljorg Contemporary Art Fellowship has provided grants to modern artists, allowing them to further explore their artwork and pursue it professionally.
Now, 39 works from those artists will be part of a major exhibition, Native Art Now! The show is at the Eiteljorg through Jan. 28, before becoming a traveling exhibition showcasing the best of Native American art to the rest of the country.
“Contemporary Native art is contemporary art. The interesting thing about it, you don’t have to know a lot about Native culture to appreciate it. You can appreciate it as an art lover,” McNutt said. “Then when you add that layer of where it’s coming from, and the fact that the artists know so much about the history of their people, their ancestry, their traditions.”
The impetus for the exhibition is the Eiteljorg’s contemporary art fellowship. Every other year since 1999, five Native artists have been chosen for the fellowship. Each is provided with a $25,000 grant and is supported as they further pursue their art.
The Eiteljorg also has purchased more than 200 pieces of contemporary art since the program started and received another approximately 200 pieces as gifts. That has left its permanent collection as one of the best repositories of contemporary Native art in the world, McNutt said.
“As we’re coming up on our 10th round, we decided that instead of putting together another smaller exhibition, we put together this traveling exhibition from our permanent collection,” she said.
The show will include a diverse range of work, including paintings, sculpture, multi-media art and photography. Jim Denomie’s colorful “Blue Eyed Chief” is a surreal portrait tinged in purple, teal and multiple shades of blue. “Feather Canoe,” created by Ho-Chunk artist Truman Lowe, is a seemingly simple creation blending willow limbs and goose feathers.
The deep blue of Joe Feddersen’s “Changer 3” features Native iconography etched into blown glass.
“After seeing this, I hope they have a greater understanding of Native people, and a great appreciation of art in general, particularly contemporary Native art,” McNutt said. “And if you’re from this state, you should have a sense of pride, that we’ve put together this collection here. It’s something people can be proud of.”
The exhibition opened Nov. 11 with a retrospective celebration and summit for artists, scholars and others involved in the contemporary art world.
To go with the exhibition, the Eiteljorg and WFYI have worked together on a documentary focusing on the fellowship, impact and evolution of contemporary Native American art.
Filmmakers traveled to places such as the Santa Fe Indian Market in New Mexico and Portland, Oregon, to interview artists, writers and collectors. The documentary will be aired locally at 8 p.m. Dec. 14 on WFYI and is expected to be shown nationally in 2018.
“It’s been a very rich experience. We have a lot of friends already in the field, but we’re also making new friends,” McNutt said. “This isn’t just about the Eiteljorg, it’s about the field of contemporary art in general. We really wanted to promote all contemporary Native artists.”