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Oklahoma artists create dialogue to discuss state's centennial

OKLAHOMA CITY - As the state of Oklahoma celebrates 100 years of being admitted into the Union, many cities and towns throughout the state are having different types of celebrations. Some include parades and festivals. Other activities include all-star country music concerts headlined by Oklahomans Vince Gill and Toby Keith. Other activities may include ''Land Run'' recreations on public school playgrounds.

''For mainstream Oklahoma, it's easier to go down the road where things are always pleasant and always happy,'' said Choctaw/Southern Cheyenne artist Tim Ramsey. ''Just for that reason, it's a little bit harder to look at someone else and empathize with another history that you're not familiar with or that might be a little bit uncomfortable.''

This ''uncomfortable'' history grows into evasive questions throughout much of the Oklahoma Centennial hoopla that in many cases are not attempted to be answered or are forgotten. What about the history of Oklahoma and Indian Territory before statehood or even before the Land Run of 1889? What about the allotment system that ultimately created Oklahoma? How about the effects of statehood and loss of land on Oklahoma's Native population today?

Oklahoma's Native artists will answer questions - and even ask new ones - with the exhibit ''Current Realities: A Dialogue with the People,'' which began with its Nov. 9 opening, featuring work from more than 75 artists at the Individual Artists of Oklahoma Gallery, 811 N. Broadway in Oklahoma City, running through Dec. 21.

The show is sponsored by a group of Native artists known collectively as ''OklaDADA,'' which began more than two years ago as a way for Native artists to meet and network. With the Oklahoma Centennial approaching, the group decided to have a show that was not reactionary, but rather created an open dialogue, especially with other Native people.

''Dialogue is not a new ideal or concept among our indigenous culture,'' said OklaDADA participant Richard Ray Whitman, Yuchi. ''We've always gathered together to share, talk, debate or plan. From time immemorial, our people have come together.''

In addition to paintings, sculptures and mixed media, film and spoken word events will surround the opening. ''Current Realities'' has also asked those who are not necessarily artists to participate by having photos taken of themselves near signage that reflects their tribal identity. Ramsey, the curator for this portion of the exhibit, said that he wanted this part of the exhibit to reflect everyday experience.

''We opened it up to people that weren't artists or weren't involved as artists because we wanted to have the basic grass-roots feel,'' he said.

Although the primary purpose of the ''Current Realities'' exhibit is, as Whitman said, to ''provide a context for understanding'' and not necessarily to sell art, an issue that comes up with Oklahoma artists is the occasional difficulty of selling art within that state. One reason, according to Ramsey, is that Oklahoma is not fully at the point financially where a lot of art can be bought as a long-term investment.

''For quite a while, Oklahoma has been in kind of a recession as far as people's disposable income and the amount of luxury goods they can really afford,'' said Ramsey. ''There's a bigger per capita disposable income out there in the world, where people here are trying to make ends meet.''

Whether the non-Indian public sympathizes with the messages of the show is not of a primary concern, but the questions and dialogue are certainly welcome. The important thing, according to Whitman, is that the questions are put to Native people for current and future generations, and that the art presented is honest and autobiographical.

''Your art has to be a glimpse into who you are,'' Whitman said. ''I don't paint me on a horse chasing buffalo. I have nothing relevant to that because I never did it - perhaps my great-great-grandfather or my grandparents. Somehow, there's nothing I can relate to that. I'm interested in more autobiographical material, about one's lived experience. We have to be honest about who we are. We need some honest assessments. We need some honest portraiture of who we are and ask hard questions about what is our purpose as artists. What is our responsibility to our tribe? What is our responsibility to our community? What is our responsibility to our families? Then, let's talk about marketing. We don't need any sympathy. What we need is some respect.''