SANTA FE, NM — The worlds of fashion and fine art often collide, both in the museum and on the runway. Exhibitions that explore the material culture of fashion through the brilliance of designers and their impact on broader culture often illustrate the mutual influence of fashion and the arts. In the Native art and fashion world, there is perhaps no more seminal figure than the Cherokee fashion designer, artist, and educator Lloyd “Kiva” New, celebrated in an exhibition at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) in Santa Fe.
New, born in Oklahoma in 1916, relocated to Chicago in the 1930s where he earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in art education from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1938. Shortly thereafter, he moved to the Southwest and taught painting at the Phoenix Indian School until he enlisted in the United States Navy in 1941, where he served on the USS Sanborn on the Pacific Front. Returning to Arizona after World War II, he continued to work as an arts educator and artist, and became a charter member of the Arizona Craftsmen Cooperative, a collective of artists in the Phoenix Metro area that was instrumental in developing the Phoenician suburb of Scottsdale into a center of southwestern art and craft.
It was in Scottsdale that New began a successful career as a fashion, accessory, and textile designer. In 1946, he took Kiva as his trade name and set up the Lloyd Kiva Studio, selling Cherokee-sourced items to Dallas-based, high-end retailer Neiman-Marcus and others nationwide. In 1951, New would also become the first Native designer to show at the Atlantic City International Fashion Show.
In the late 1950s, New began to shift his career path towards education once again, and in 1961 he accepted the position as art director at the newly created Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe. Subsequently, he was appointed the director of IAIA in 1967, a position he held until his retirement in 1978. New remained an active figure and spokesperson in and for the American Indian art world until his death in 2002.
The MoCNA exhibition is comprehensive and expressive. New’s designs, his artwork, as well as the student work he influenced during his tenure at IAIA are the three founding elements for the show, and the impetus for its title, Art, Design, and Influence. In the first gallery, works on display include paintings by New — many of which have not been exhibited previous to this installation — spanning almost 60 years of the artist’s life, from 1938 to 1995. The work is colorful, minimal, and geometric. It references not only New’s indigeneity, but also the modernity of a post-war society in which streamlined aesthetics were highly prevalent.
Progressing deeper into the exhibition you encounter the meat of it, and what exhibition goers are hoping to see: New’s designs. The gallery is meant as an ode to the Kiva Studio: Garments on mannequins, organized as in a retail setting, sit in front of a large-format image of the Scottsdale showroom, while plinths with acrylic toppers work as cases displaying handbags, hats, and various other accessories. New was in tune with the American fashion and style of the 1950s, designing trendy items like shirtdresses with cinched waists, fitted cocktail dresses with bateau necklines, and boxy jackets paired with pencil skirts for women, and smoking jackets, button-downs, and sport coats for men. However, what New was most brilliant at was hybridizing those in-the-moment looks with his Indigeneity, celebrating what would become known as part of Native Modernism. In his designs, he incorporated traditionally woven textiles, hand-dyed with prints that reference his identity as a Cherokee man. New wanted and strived for agency and representation, one in which his Indigeneity was not exploited or bastardized, but honored and respected. The designs represented a new époque of American Indian art, one in which Native aesthetics were being made by Native hands.
The final room of the exhibition is a flood of color featuring floor-to-ceiling swaths of fabric billowing as visitors progress through the space. The work, created in the 1960s and ’70s, was produced by students from IAIA during New’s tenure as director. The pieces of fabric boast exquisite, vibrant colors, as geometric and tessellated patterns soar over the viewer. The monumental scale in which these fabrics were installed and displayed reference the expansive influence New’s aesthetic, vision, and drive had over these students, and over the Native art world.
In the contemporary art and fashion worlds, indigenous artists and designers, while very active and producing great work, are severely and shamefully underrepresented on the global stage. Considering that the lack of representation of Native artists during New’s time is not so different from now, figures like him continue to serve as inspiration through his memorable legacy.
Lloyd Kiva New: Art, Design, and Influence continues at IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (108 Cathedral Pl, Santa Fe, New Mexico) through July 31.