Historical And Contemporary Indigenous Art At Toledo’s Museum Of Art

. March 1, 2019.
Wendy Red Star (American, Apsáalooke [Crow] Nation, born 1981), Four Seasons Series (Spring). Four archival pigment prints 2006.
Wendy Red Star (American, Apsáalooke [Crow] Nation, born 1981), Four Seasons Series (Spring). Four archival pigment prints 2006.

The “Expanded Views: Native American Art in Focus” exhibit at the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA) runs through April 28. TMA recently acquired several additions to their Native American art collection, which enhance the focus on Indigenous American culture and identity. Rather than having the feel of an anthropological exhibit, as collections with indigenous works often do, the additions to the TMA gallery give a voice to both past and contemporary indigenous artists.

The first piece that draws in the viewer is a massive installation by James Lavadour of the Walla Walla tribe. The piece, entitled “Tiichum,” consists of 15 oil-painted panels of striking colors. Lavadour’s technique consists of layering and scraping the paints until he achieves the desired effect. The images that emerge are abstracted canyons and mountains, rivers, and coastlines, reminiscent of a virginal earth, untouched by pollutants and free from land seizure and industrialization.

“Four Seasons Series,” by Wendy Red Star of the Apsáalooke Nation, is one of the most compelling pieces in the exhibit. In four archival pigment prints, Red Star depicts the four seasons, out of order, beginning with autumn, followed by winter, then summer, and finally, spring. In each print, the artist features herself in full traditional regalia amid fabricated, flat scenes of nature that include an inflatable elk, deer cutouts, and photo backdrops. Despite striking different poses for each photograph, Red Star stares into the camera for each print. The effect is that her eyes follow wherever the viewer moves.

Marie Watt of the Seneca Nation has two very different pieces included in the exhibit. One is entitled “Companion Species (Repose)” and consists of a glass sculpture of a she-wolf (a motif in Watt’s work) reclining on a western walnut base. The other is a tapestry created from a reclaimed wool blanket, satin binding, thread, and embroidery floss that features an Air Force drone in blue over a red eagle.

The exhibit also features pottery from the Southwest, including a few samples of the work of Maria Martinez from the San Ildefonso-Tewa Nation. Additionally, there are a few rare pieces of historical significance, such as an 1850s embroidered manta (shawl) from the Acoma Pueblo and two ledger drawings of the Apsáalooke from around the 1890s.

Reclamation of Identity and Culture Overshadows Stereotypes

Red Star’s “Four Seasons Series” cuts straight to the point, addressing non-indigenous perceptions of indigenous identity. The purpose of the deeply contrasting elements of her regalia and nature cutouts, according to Red Star, is to highlight the oversimplification of Native Americans and their narratives, as so often portrayed in popular American culture. The simultaneous cynicism and self-awareness that results from placing herself in non-Native environment is punctuated by the way in which her gaze follows the viewer, daring them to view her and her culture as “one-dimensional.”

Throughout the exhibit, the viewer is placed in the middle of depictions of indigenous culture. This experience is punctuated by the addition of American artists, like Frederic Remington. Each non-native artwork is paired with a similar piece by an indigenous artist.

Those non-native pieces feel completely out of place, reflecting a literal and metaphorical intrusion that forces the viewer to confront stereotypes, like the “noble savage” or “Cherokee princess,” regarding the injury and insult of such stereotypes. Thus, the exhibit causes that reclamation of identity and culture to become tangible to the viewer. So overwhelming are the scale and grandeur of the artworks, that upon leaving the exhibit, one carries an echo of the enduring voice of Indigenous America.

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