‘Totems to Turquoise’ Exhibit educates the public on authentic Native art

LOS ANGELES – The striking beauty, power and symbolism of indigenous jewelry and artifacts will be featured at the Museum of the American West in Los Angeles through Aug. 20.

“Totems to Turquoise” contrasts traditional expression with exquisite contemporary works by master Native artisans from the Northwest coast and the southwestern United States. The Los Angeles showing winds up a three-city tour that began at New York’s Museum of Natural History.

The exhibit serves to educate the public about the rich traditions and forms of American Indian, Alaska Native and First Nations art. Strong colors and angular shapes echo the environment of Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Santo Domingo and Rio Grande Pueblos, while the fluid form lines of the Haida, Kwakwaka’wakw, Tlingit and other Northwest Coast nations reflect their watery surroundings. Beneath the differences, artistic expressions of both regions embody living traditions that define enduring cultural ties, social structures and worldviews. Talented Native weavers, jewelers and carvers are respected for carrying deeply held beliefs forward by creating adornments that preserve tribal identity and embody their members’ wealth.

“For our people, what we wear is who we are,” Jim Hart, a Haida artist who served as one of the advisers for the show, said. “Our jewelry and our clothing represent where we come from. We wear our history.”

Hart was among a group of four artists who participated in a panel discussion on the interplay of tradition and innovation in contemporary Native art. The speakers also discussed at length the importance of authenticity and the problem of cheap offshore “knock-offs” that flood the Native art world.

One goal of the “Totems to Turquoise” exhibit is to develop a discerning public that won’t be tricked into buying mass-produced imitations presented as authentic Indian work, said the show’s co-curator and panel facilitator, Lois Sherr Dubin.

Besides threatening the integrity of America Indian culture, counterfeiting deprives indigenous artists of income. By some estimates, nearly half a billion dollars in fake artwork is peddled on the billion-dollar Native art market each year.

“This is so unbelievably terrible: we can be here all night complaining,” said Jesse Monongya, a master inlay jeweler who serves on the Indian Arts and Crafts Board.

The IACB is an agency within the Department of the Interior that promotes economic development through the marketing and protection of the Native arts and crafts industry. The board also publishes a directory of Indian-owned and operated arts and crafts businesses.

“It’s been quite a battle for me, but one of my biggest pet peeves is to make sure our young people don’t get robbed of their art,” Monongya said.

The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, a truth-in-marketing and consumer protection law co-authored by former U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, is ineffective, he said. Its criminal and civil penalties for selling fake “Indian-made” products have never resulted in a prosecution, according to Monongya.

“What we’re trying to do is educate people with the exhibit on display, to tell you it’s totally different,” he said. “The indigenous people never design a piece to look gaudy … The Indian people, my people, always design their pieces to be sturdy and last a long time.”

Tlingit carver Nathan Jackson responded to a question from the audience on how buyers can ensure the authenticity of pieces.

“Anytime you’re traveling someplace … get information, find out what the people are all about. Take notes, and then go to the store; you’ll already be educated by the time you get there,” he advised. He also suggested contacting artists or their agents by e-mail.

According to the IACB Web site, sellers with authentic goods will provide written guarantees of authenticity.

“Certain galleries and shops can be trusted. You have to know who these people are,” Dubin added. “The good stuff isn’t a steal.”

The “Totems to Turquoise” exhibit contains more than 500 exquisite examples of “the good stuff.” From the traditional Kwakwaka’wakw wild woman mask that greets visitors to an array of contemporary jewelry made by some of the world’s finest master craftsman and more, the collection is a veritable celebration for the eyes and heart.

To learn more about the IACB or to find out how to report violations of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, visit www.doi.gov/iacb/file.html or call (888) ART-FAKE.