Native art that dwells in past, speaks to the moment

Emily Johnson, 
Niicugni, 2012
. Fish skin lanterns

At the IAIA’s Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe, NM, is a collection of shows that are positively buzzing with artistic vision at the confluence of western geography and culture. From superb pieces from the museum’s permanent collection that showcase Native artists working in the latter half of the twentieth century to contemporary artists, the seven shows currently on view illustrate a wide-ranging, thoughtful, radical western perspective.

Occupying the small gallery adjacent to the gift shop is a mural and a collection of works on paper by Terran J. Last Gun, who evinces a strikingly clear-headed yet vibrant conception of how landscape interacts with cultural, and personal, memory. The works on paper, a mix of serigraph prints, feature brightly colored simple geometric shapes like circles and rectangles and cylindrical mounds sliced through with harsh lines and zig zags. The contrast of polygons and circular shapes resemble abstract western landscapes of mountains and deserts and rising suns while the thick lines traversing the scene suggest something more abstract, like memory, is at play. The wall text discusses Last Gun’s Piikani (Blackfeet) heritage and his culture’s visual language, which includes representations of structures like their painted lodges, and it makes you wonder how simple geometry can contain cultural memory while pointing to something more personal, for the viewer and the artist. It requires an agile and multi-dimensional use of language where the visual and the narrative meet, a sweet spot that Last Gun is drenching in colorful, striking possibilities.

Terran Last Gun Piikani (Blackfeet), Rolling Hill, 2017, serigraph 30 x 22 in.

On the larger scale mural, the blue triangular painted lodge shape with a black circle/void at the center enacts this conjecture of memory and language in a physical way; it creates a feeling of being able to enter it, to walk right into it and experience what the painting is recalling. Outside in the sculpture garden is a collaboration between Last Gun and Eliza Naranjo Morse (Santa Clara Pueblo) that features Last Gun’s signature geometric graphic populated by Morse’s human-like creatures, an architectural structure, and mountains. It’s a striking example of the kind of landscape Last Gun allows to take form with his evocative hints, and Morse’s contribution fills in the imaginative space with a sci-fi mythical creation that viewers will enjoy unpacking.

Last Gun’s work with geometry and memory and language left me excited to see what the artist, with such a vast amount of artistic space to explore, does next. Rolande Souliere’s (Michipicoten First Nation) murals, down the hall from Last Gun’s, occupy a similar space that’s more focused on the visuals of language itself versus the language of visuals. The three murals that make up “Form and Content” feature heavily on bold-colored backgrounds and geometric shapes, like Last Gun, but the “landscapes” seem less like natural scenes and more like zooming in on the form of written characters. Together, they seem to ask what the shape and sound and culture of language looks like in a “landscape.” The wall text references Ojibway, Cree, and Inuit syllabics, but as someone unfamiliar with these languages I had to take abstract leaps in connecting the visuals with the thematic elements. Again, I was left wanting more, and that’s a good thing to feel at a museum even if it’s partly the result of big ideas with little explanation on the part of the museum and partly a lack of knowledge concerning Native culture on mine.

Mehner, Da-ka-xeen
 Drums, Gaaw Kooteeyaa 2
75″ height x 21″ width x 7″ depth

In the main gallery space is a collection of work more sharply political and less abstract at times but still cognizant of the power of language. The group show, titled “Without Boundaries: Visual Conversations,” again links the visual and cultural properties of language but the space being explored is not a landscape but a political reality. One of the first pieces, a trio of animal hide drums by Da-ka-xeen Mehner (Tlingit/N’ishga) foregrounds the challenge of contemporary Native identity wrestled with throughout the show. Emerging in relief from the drums are human faces: personal identity emerging out of Native ancestry/culture but also, perhaps, masked and constrained by that culture and what it pushes up against. Elsewhere, that opposition, that monolithic Anglo-American culture and its capitalist wrath, brings out different concerns from the artists. The installation by Emily Johnson (Yup’ik), “Nikugni,” features a constellation of hanging fish lanterns hand-sewn by volunteers across the country over a period of two years. The way the brown, semi-transparent volumes of air are suspended, almost imperceptibly swaying in the gallery AC and softly glowing under the lights, is a performance of collective labor on the part of natural and human resources alike but also of a cultural tradition threatened by climate change and lobbyist-powered environmental policies.

Behind Johnson’s installation (at least, as you enter the gallery), and partly alighting the lanterns, is Edgar Heap of Birds’ (Southern Cheyenne) “Dead Indian Stories,” a series of phrases written in red ink on rag paper. The phrases, like “BUILT TO STARVE LIONS SHARE MISERY” and “FLESH IN FIRE DUNG THE GROUND” use homophones, enjambment, and broken English to convey broken bodies and the very real impact of not only the English language but Anglo-American culture on Native communities. The arresting color of the paintings points to the violence embedded in language, especially when one language is forced on a culture at the expense of that culture’s own language, and the crude, rag-signed words themselves convey a basic desperation common to many cultures who have come into contact with manifest destiny.

James Luna
, James Pollack, 201 6
Digital photograph, cowhide, paint can
 and paint brush

There’s a cheeky yet earnest homage to Jackson Pollock’s drip painting method by James Luna (Payómkawichum/Luiseño) and a basket by Shan Goshorn (Eastern Band Cherokee) that literally and figuratively weaves together historic representations of Natives. It’s a powerful show, and all the more powerful once you head to the permanent collections and tie the work made throughout the twentieth century by Natives (“Action/Abstraction Redefined”), work that echoes and in many instances outperforms the more famous iterations found in art history textbooks, to the work emerging today from reservations and art institutes and cities alike. It’s starting and continuing conversations that aren’t often given the spotlight in the broader art world, and I, for one, though late to the table, will be eagerly listening.

Shan Goshorn,Collectibles, 2017,Approx 6” x 6” x 15.”
Arches. watercolor. paper printed with archival inks, acrylic.paint, artificial sinew.


IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) is located at 108 Cathedral Place, Santa Fe, NM. There’s plenty of info on the exhibitions and when they close right here. (The first in this review ends July 7.)


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here