Native American Art’s Disputed Boundaries

Installation of the tipi at the Brooklyn Museum (photo courtesy Brooklyn Museum)

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of posts on Hyperallergic that will explore the Brooklyn Museum’s Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains exhibit.

Every so often an art review riles readers and critics enough to actually respond to it. That’s what happened after New York Times art critic Ken Johnson’s review of the Brooklyn Museum’s Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains exhibit was published a week and a half ago. Johnson is not shy about stating his assessment up front, leading with “You know there’s trouble when the first object you encounter in a museum exhibition looks as if it had been misplaced from the gift shop.”

Johnson faults the museum for exhibiting “kitschy” contemporary Native American artists alongside the “outstanding” mostly 19th-century Plains objects that make up the majority of the exhibition. The exhibit’s juxtaposition of old and new Native art, writes Johnson, erroneously suggests that “there is no important difference” between them. The museum aims the exhibit at an unsophisticated viewer, says Johnson, “speaks down to its audience … and does as little as possible to offend or stir controversy.”

Teri Greeves, "Great Lakes Girls" (2008) (image courtesy Brooklyn Museum) (click to enlarge)

But some feel it’s Johnson, and not the exhibit, that condescends. Critic Lee Rosenbaum recently reported on the Brooklyn exhibit for the Wall Street Journal and then in the Huffington Post contextualized the Brooklyn exhibit with other exhibits at the National Museum of the American Indian and the Denver Museum. Rosenbaum agrees that some of the contemporary works don’t match up to the traditional ones, but faults Johnson for letting a few “kitschy” works — like Teri Greeves, “Great Lakes Girls” (2008), a pair of intricately beaded high-heeled boots is the prime kitsch example both critics cite — obscure the show’s informative value.

The most comprehensive take on the critical spar so far is blogger America Meredith, a Cherokee visual artist based in Santa Fe, New Mexico who has been copiously and incisively documenting it on her blog, Ahalenia.

Meredith’s first post takes issue with Johnson’s assertion that the Brooklyn Museum “speaks down” to viewers, writing that “very unfortunately non-Natives tend to not have extensive knowledge of Native culture,” and goes on to identify several factual incongruities in Johnson’s own review, including his spelling of “tipi” as “tepee” and his mistaken labeling of Butch Thunder Hawk’s “Horse Head Effigy Stick” (c. 20th century) as a club rather than a memorial object. She goes on to list three conventional views of Native Americans entrenched in the American psyche:

  • Indians are historic.
  • Indians are dead.
  • Indians are tragic.

Works of contemporary artists exhibited like Teri Greeves, Bently Spang and Lyle J. Heavy Runner, she writes, disprove all of these notions and Johnson’s conclusion that “The Plains Indian culture … was practically destroyed.”

In her second post Meredith suggests that the exhibit has a disruptive quality and is therefore creating disconnects between what’s actually being exhibited and the critic’s misconceptions about Native American art and where it belongs. “If this show were at the National Museum of the American Indian, the response would no doubt be different,” she writes.

The Brooklyn Museum exhibit does indeed raise some uncomfortable issues: Is there still an imagined Native American in the American psyche and if so, is it effective to build a whole exhibit around correcting it?

Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains continues until May 15, 2011 at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn).

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