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Denver Museum Focuses on Art, Not Artifacts

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DENVER—American Indian artists through the ages have been painting, carving, decorating and incising but their works have often been presented in mainstream museums and galleries as artifacts, representations of cultures or time periods, rather than as art produced by individuals.

That’s changing with Denver Art Museum’s new Native Arts galleries’ “artist-centric” presentation of some 700 Native pieces ranging from prehistoric to contemporary that focus on individual artists, some of them working locally.

Instead of merely identifying pieces by tribe or geographic region, artists’ names are used whenever possible, Nancy Blomberg, curator of Native Arts at DAM, said of the Native galleries that reopened Jan. 30 after months of redesign.

As a result, there is a bandolier from 1865-75 by an unknown Ute artist, but also a robe by Dah-haw, a Ute, from about 1900 and a depiction from the late 1800s of the Bear and Sun Dances by Louis Fenno, a Ute artist. Names are used in many other installations.

“There’s the automatic assumption that American Indian art is more an anthropological exploration rather than an artistic exploration,” she said. “People have thought the objects just sort of bubbled up out of immutable cultures with no artists behind them.”

“I can’t imagine interpreting this material without talking to people whose heritage is represented on the floor,” she said.

“Every artwork in our collection was created by an individual artist, with his or her own opinions, influences and inspirations,” she said during planning for the new Native exhibition, describing it as “art, not anthropology,” or, as a DAM press release puts it, “art rather than artifacts.”

Denver-area women asked to create touchable items for the education area of the art museum “brought their own voice and perspective to the process,” said Heather Nielson, head of DAM’s community and family program and master teacher for Native Arts.

“We are sharing with our non-Native visitors the fact that the American Indian community in Denver is active and present,” she said of DAM’s decision to feature local talent and perspectives as well as the work of internationally known Native artists.

One of the local artists, Ann-erika Whitebird, “embraced the idea of creating a jean jacket that kids could try on, and was a blend of her traditional and contemporary perspectives,” Nielson noted.

“An eagle is in the center which represents protection for a child—the eagle being such a strong part of our culture, carrying our prayers, able to transcend earth’s confines by flight,” Whitebird said. “The design above the eagle is a traditional design that could be quilled but I’ve used some contemporary colors and cut beads as well.”

Whitebird, who is Sicangu Lakota and originally from Rosebud, S.D., has lived both on- and off-reservation and said she was honored at being commissioned by the museum. In creating the jacket, she said she thought of the children who would try it on, “especially Indigenous children who do not know where they come from.”

“If a child were to make a connection that way, through our art to where they come from, then my work could be a part of returning our children home,” said Whitebird, who has been beading about 14 years. “We affect each other in many ways that we can’t possibly know or understand. My intentions, thoughts and prayers went into this piece.”

Other Native contributors from Denver are Jan Jacobs, Osage, daughter of a renowned ribbon worker, who created new ribbon work for display with a historical cradle board; Raelene White Shield, Kiowa, who created a fancy shawl dress for an exhibit depicting ceremonial regalia among Plains tribes, a “highly important art form;” and Denise Litz, Tuscarora, who crafted a touchable beaded picture frame and pieces to demonstrate in-process technique learned from well-known family beadworkers.

Additional commissioned contemporary pieces are part of the new 23,000-square-feet gallery, where visitors will be able to watch Roxanne Swentzell, Santa Clara, Santa Fe, N.M., create a 10-feet-tall sculpture of a Pueblo mother and her four children.

“She worked with the museum to decide the best material for the artwork” titled “Mud Woman Rolls On,” Blomberg said, noting Swentzell is part of “our collection (which) is encyclopedic” and part of the belief that “It’s important to get work from the most significant artists working today as well as historic artworks.”

Other purchased or commissioned works include a “Land O Bucks, Land O Fakes, Land O Lakes” depiction by David Bradley, Chippewa, Santa Fe, N.M.; “Hummingbird and Copper Dress,” Dorothy Grant, Haida, Vancouver, B.C.; “Half Indian/Half Mexican,” a triple portrait, James Luna, Luiseno, San Diego County, Calif.; “Corn Blue Room” installation, Jolene Rickard, Tuscarora, faculty of Cornell University, N.Y. and “Modern Warrior Series: War Shirt #4, Bentley Spang, Cheyenne, Billings, Mont.

Interactive experiences in the new galleries will involve Luna; Mateo Romero, Cochiti, “Bonnie and Clyde Series;” and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Salish/Kootenai/Cree/Shoshone, “Trade Canoe for Don Quixote.” There will also be an interactive Bead Studio, Meet the Artist media installation, and a digital gallery posing the question, “What is American Indian art?”