A first-of-its-kind exhibition is coming to Oklahoma City, featuring Native nude art by Native Americans from a variety of tribes.
The Native American Body of Art exhibition will run for a month at Oklahoma City’s Shakespeare in the Park Gallery. It opens July 7. The project is the idea of Brent Learned, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes.
“You can go to any museum in the country and see every race and creed done by people from those races, but you don’t see Native Americans nude depicted that way,” Learned said. “It’s always somebody else who’s carrying that dialogue. So I wanted to put together an exhibition that would carry that dialogue.”
Learned recalls that years ago he was taking part in an Indian art market in Wichita, Kansas, and the director wanted to purchase a piece based on a historical photograph that included two nude bodies. But the person who wrote the checks wouldn’t agree to it, which flabbergasted Learned, who thought there’s no better way to educate than to showcase the beauty of the body.
So that’s what he hopes to do with the Native American Body of Art exhibition, which he says will be avant-garde and like nothing done before. Held at the Shakespeare in the Park Gallery in Oklahoma City for one month, the exhibition will showcase the paintings of both men and women from a variety of tribes.
“A lot of people, especially even Natives, think it’s taboo and it’s against their culture and beliefs,” he said of nude artwork. “In reality, it’s not. They’ve been force-fed that when they went through assimilation. Let’s face it, who was in charge of that? It was the churches when they went to boarding schools. You have two or three generations beat down and told not to be who they are due to amnesia.”
In 2017, Native American artists are finally finding their voice, he said, though it’s mind-boggling that it’s taken until now for an entire subset of people to find their voice. He noted that Native American art hasn’t gone through major renaissance like European art has. “We’re just now discovering our voice in 2017. In my opinion it boils down to assimilation and we had amnesia and we’re just now coming out of that,” he said.
Learned notes that the body isn’t anything to be ashamed of. “I’m not ashamed of my body, and I’m not ashamed of the things I paint, because as an artist, that’s one of the things I like to do is tear down boundaries, tear down walls, provoke conversation, and there’s no other way to do than to do an exhibition of this caliber,” he said.
The exhibition will also be highlighting the plight of Native American women, who suffer from disproportionate levels of abuse and sexual abuse. According to data from the 2016 Nation Institute of Justice report, more than half of Native women were assaulted and/or experienced physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetimes.
That’s why Learned has six female artists taking part in the Native American Body of Art exhibition and four male artists. “I wanted more female voices to be heard than male voices,” he said.
Brenda Mackey said she’s fairly new to painting and got involved with the project after hearing Learned’s passion for it. She said she’s anxious to see what the reaction will be to the artwork from the public.
“I’m sure there are going to be some who will like it and some who will not,” said Mackey, a member of the Choctaw Nation. “I think maybe the ones who don’t like it are going to be more traditional. I don’t know how it’s going to go but I’m looking forward to it.”
MaryBeth Timothy, a member of the Cherokee Nation, said she was initially reluctant to take part because, she said, when people think of nude art, they often think of erotic art. But the more she thought about it and talked to Learned, the more she realized it could be a challenge for her.
“I thought this could be a chance for me to do something different and an empowering piece and a historical piece, something like that. It would be more for teaching,” she said. “I feel like it’s a challenge and stepping outside my comfort zone and doing something I don’t normally do.”
The historical piece features two mothers with children bathing in a waterfall. The female empowerment piece features a woman revealing her inner self by pulling her skin off her body.
“She’s actually a little bit heavier and has some rolls. She has a C-section scar and has stretch marks. On the inside where she’s pulling it apart, it has all Southeastern tribal symbols,” she said. “I just wanted to show that we’re more than what our outer body looks like. We’re our history. We’re our family. We’re our story and all these things make us who we are, and that’s what makes us beautiful.”