By Mark Fogarty -- TODAY CORRESPONDENT
NEW YORK - Indian country often starts where the maps and the roads end.
This point is reinforced by a new exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian that extends that territory to the inner landscape of the artists' minds, as well.
''Off the Map: Landscape in the Native Imagination,'' on display at the NMAI's George Gustav Heye Center through Sept. 3, features meditations on interior and exterior territory from James Lavadour, Walla Walla; Carlos Jacanamijoy, Inga; Emmi Whitehorse, Navajo; Jeffrey Gibson, Mississippi Band Choctaw/Cherokee; and Erica Lord, Inuit/Athabascan.
Visitors will be entranced by the magical, water-murmuring canvases of Whitehorse, whose surfaces seem to shimmer like moving water and where symbols seem to change shape into numbers and back. While most Easterners can't really appreciate how important water is to desert people, everyone can appreciate how a desert artist can bring it to life so sublimely.
Lord's installation and video, called ''Binary Selves,'' was extremely poignant and evocative. One enters a narrow, dark space, with alternating vertical strips of mirrors and black cloth, and proceeds to a pair of video monitors, tilted so they reflect endlessly.
''Binary'' refers to something that splits and then splits again; and in this installation, many aspects of the artist are split and held up for examination: child and adult, Native and non-Native, interior and exterior landscapes, city and country, old and new traditions, girl and woman. In the video, Lord tours her father's Alaska Native village of Nenana. It is winter, and cold enough to set her teeth chattering.
Lord represents her splits, struggles and strengths quite literally, by splitting her video into multiple images that interact with each other. So she pictures two of her selves throat singing to each other in an old Inuit woman-only tradition and, at the end, two of her selves play a hand game that is a new tradition among local girls. It is playful yet eerie; funny, sad and lonely.
One can connect Lord's space to a funhouse mirror or a tree house, something created by a playful, lonely child to amuse herself in the midst of a vast loneliness. And in the poignancy of a child creating a space in which to sing to herself, one sees a potent prefiguring of the adult creating art.
Lord gave a talk in front of her installation and said it is about her walking in two worlds, in a place where cultures combine and meet. The difficulties that come with this get physical representation in the installation, where it is difficult to see clearly or hear her voice in the withering wind.
Still, the piece has a triumphant ending, where one ''self'' leaves and the other stays - but both are still together. The two women singing to each other and the two girls playing with each other's hands are as connected to each other as they are separate.
In her artist's statement, Lord said: ''I would like to create an image of my world, to invite and pull viewers into the imaginary space where I am allowed to be all selves at once.''
In talking notes, Lord noted that ''as an only child, I learned to play with myself, and longed for a playmate; as a child of mixed race and cultures, I became many selves, all of them interacting and opposing each other.''
Her notes reveal she had originally considered using trees and railroad ties in the installation, to indicate that both rural and urban could be sacred spaces for Native people. ''I want to believe that as strong people, we can find the power within the stone and electric towers, as rural environments do not always guarantee an easy discovery of the sacred.''
And she writes: ''Through art or ritual, I discover ways to find a root and affirm my position as a shifting self, understanding that in order to survive, identity and culture cannot be static.''
Jacanamijoy was also on hand to speak about his oil on canvas paintings, but since he doesn't speak English, a friend translated his Spanish for attendees.
Jacanamijoy's work is abstract, but its forms and colors (green, yellow and blue) speak of the jungle where he grew up in Colombia. However, the work on display at NMAI was done between 2004 and 2006 when he was in transition between Colombia and New York City, where he now lives.
He noted, through the translator, that the jungle motif in his work extends to the sounds and lights of New York. And he said it was a shock to go from a town of 2,000 in Colombia to a big city like New York, although he has also spent time in Bogota.
Jacanamijoy said he spends one to three months working on each canvas, and that he works on several at a time. He also said he doesn't have an outcome in mind when he starts, but lets the theme come to him as he paints.
Gibson's artist's statement says he wants to ''act out the role of an explorer depicting an inviting landscape,'' and that his work has utopian leanings. His ''Promise'' is an interesting piece - made of urethane foam, oil paint, spray paint and pigmented silicone, it spills out of a wall recess. But it seems more of a solid than a liquid: glacier ice, perhaps, on its long trip to the ocean.
Lavadour's ''Blanket'' (oil on board) is an interesting collage of multiple brightly painted landscapes that, taken all together, take on the rectangular shape of a blanket. He paints with verve and high energy and with imaginative colors not necessarily native to the landscape in question.
Besides the ''Off the Map'' show, two other exhibits currently are running at NMAI New York. One, ''Born of Clay,'' is on Native ceramics from the Andes up through Mexico and the American Southwest, with a side jog to the Woodlands tribes. It runs through spring.
The other is an exhibit of recent acquisitions at NMAI called ''Indigenous Motivation.'' Its many beautiful artifacts include a gorgeous pair of Inupiaq ''bunny slippers'' made of bearded sealskin, rabbit fur, raccoon fur and glass beads.