'Art from Indian Territory' brings contemporary art to rural communities


ANADARKO, Okla. - When modern or contemporary American Indian art goes on exhibit in Oklahoma, it usually occurs in places such as Oklahoma City, Norman or Tulsa, with people from rural Native communities having to drive long distances to attend art openings.

Although Oklahoma City's upcoming American Indian Cultural Center and Museum is still under construction, it hasn't stopped the museum from getting art to the people. ''Art from Indian Territory,'' the museum's inaugural touring exhibit, was designed to tour five different regions in Oklahoma with the express purpose of bringing contemporary Native art to the entire state.

''We wanted the Indian community in each of these places to really have a sense of ownership of this, to be very proud of the Native artists that populate our state,'' said Shoshana Wasserman, AICCM division director of marketing and development. ''It's a remarkable opportunity to see current works that you might see at NMAI or at the [Oklahoma] History Center or at Santa Fe.''

''Art from Indian Territory'' began its tour through Oklahoma on Feb. 4 with an opening at Southwest Oklahoma State University in Weatherford. Since then, it has opened in Anadarko at the Southern Plains Indian Museum, where it is on display through May 6. Future exhibits of the show include the Creek Nation Capitol Complex in Okmulgee, May 13 through June 24; Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant, July 1 through Aug. 12; and the Oklahoma History Center in Oklahoma City, Aug. 20 - Sept. 30.

Works displayed in the show consists of paintings, ceramics, jewelry, photography, custom-made knives and beadwork. The curators and creators of the exhibit, Mary Jo Watson and Heather Ahtone, selected the artists for the show and required each of them to identify themselves with a particular category - identity, multiplicity or geography.

The first category, identity, applies if the artist's tribe has long ties to or has been in Oklahoma the longest. Multiplicity has to do with if an artist is descended from several tribes or is multi-racial. Geography pertains to whether an artist lived in Oklahoma but belonged to a tribe from out of state.

Two artists in the exhibit are married couple Brent Greenwood, of the Ponca and Chickasaw tribes, and Kennetha Greenwood, of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe. Brent Greenwood's painting, ''There Goes the Neighborhood,'' deals with surviving the painful subject of allotment from which the land base of Oklahoma was carved out. The painting also incorporates collage elements such as Indian territory and modern Oklahoma maps.

''A lot of my pieces are inspired by either War Dance songs or oral tradition,'' he said. ''The subject matter itself is inspired by a story I was told by an elder of mine - a grandfather on my Ponca side. He basically told me that during the land run, the Poncas were granted permission by their Indian agent to take up firearms to protect their boundaries. This meant to fire warning shots in the air - no confrontation or anything like that - if they felt their boundaries were being encroached upon by the oncoming settlers.''

Kennetha Greenwood's entry into the exhibit shows not only her family and tribal heritage, but also her modern interpretations of these traditional designs. ''Mun'je,'' the Otoe word for ''brown bear,'' is the center point of a beaded bracelet made by Greenwood that shows her Otoe clan membership. Flanking the bear are floral designs from Greenwood's great-grandmother. However, these traditional designs have been given a more modern appearance by using techniques such as shading.

''The designs that I present through my work are not always that which is considered traditional,'' she said. ''Indian people have evolved and changed over the centuries, not all by choice, but yet it has come about. It is only logical that Indian art would also evolve from what it once was. It is important that the public understand that Indian art is an expression or emotion created by an Indian artist without having boundaries placed on it locking it into a traditional sense.''

She said that some of her beadwork inspirations have not only been from her own traditions, but also from pop-culture icons such as Pokemon figures. She has also participated in what she said was a ''cultural exchange,'' when she recreated bead designs belonging to the Maori people of New Zealand.

''Generations of Otoes have been here since the 1800s,'' she said. ''That's what I drew on. They wanted to show Oklahoma Indian art today, so that's why I drew on my heritage and traditional items, but I put it in a contemporary light. I think doing more contemporary work makes it interesting for people who might not otherwise have an interest in beadwork.''

Overall, Brent Greenwood said that each artist that participated in the exhibit ''expresses something really personal. It's a personal relationship to being an Oklahoma Indian now.'' He also said that people should see the exhibit to expand the dialogue about the potential of Native art.

''I think it will open doors for not just creative thought, but intellectual thought,'' he said. ''I think it challenges people to think about the possibilities of what art could be - not just Indian art but art in general. I think it will evoke emotion among people to open their minds to what art could be. The messages are strong, be they personal or be the messages reflecting on current situations. I think all the messages are really progressive, and I think that's what people really need to take away from the show.''