Indigenous/Native American people in the western hemisphere have created art since time immemorial. European encroachment in the West during the 15th century prompted the colonization of the “Americas” which in turn led to the systematic destruction of Indigenous people(s) and their culture. Colonial expansion led to the destruction of traditional Indigenous art ways and coincided with the widespread introduction of western studio art and western art philosophy. According to Farris (2005) Indigenous aesthetics have “survived colonialism, servitude, racial discrimination and rapid technological changes” (p. 269). Contemporary Indigenous visual artists have consistently used traditional and studio mediums to produce groundbreaking work that challenges Western artistic norms. They have done this by centering their tribal community, ancestral ways of knowing, and their contemporary existence in the work they produce. There are Indigenous artists from tribal nations around the country who work to resist western hegemony by expressing their indigeneity in their artwork. In this regard, visual art is an important platform for elevating the marginalized voices of native communities.
Indigenous artists’ voices have been virtually omitted from the academy. There has been no substantial sociological inquiry that examines how contemporary Indigenous artists negotiate the art world, navigate indigenous identity, and engage in resistance through creating art. Visual Art is a key driver of resistance, self-expression, and is a way that Indigenous folks have connected with their ancestors since time immemorial. Therefore there is a need to uplift the voices of Indigenous artists who do not always have access to the academy. The purpose of this study is to build on previous research and engage in a phenomenological study with artists who identify as Native and work with Native communities. In sum, this study aims to examine the ethos of artists working within Native communities in urban cities like Los Angeles, CA and Santa Fe, NM. I explore how artists navigate and incorporate their Indigeneity into their artistic praxis. I also examine how Indigenous artists use their work to connect with their ancestors. Through engaging in dialogue with artists I examine the ways in which they define the social, political, and personal implications of centering their work in the Indigenous lived experience.
Begay’s film, entitled Lightning Boy, combines a culturally-based story-line with contemporary special effects, featuring the award-winning poet and writer Vivian Mary Carroll. Lightning Boy received the 2019 TCJ Student Best Film Award and will be present at the Pocahontas Reframed “Storytellers” Film Festival in Richmond, Virginia in 2020.
Examining how contemporary Indigenous artists conceptualize their work is key to understanding the artists in conversation. Rachetter (2017) argues, “The simple act of retaining and protecting knowledge is political”(p.115). Art is inseparable from life for Indigenous people, it is used as a means to pass down history and connect with the ancestors. According to Farris (2006), “Native American art is usually regarded by its creators as an essential element of life, not just a separate aesthetic expression” (p, 253). Contemporary Indigenous visual artists work in both traditional and western mediums and often create work en the verso as a means to contest western hegemonic ideology. Visual art has provided an important platform for elevating the marginalized voices of Indigenous communities and is a means for constructing alternative ideologies. Beyerbach and Ramalho (2011) assert, “art is a contested space where theoretical and political views about the discipline sometimes conflict with another” (p. 203).
In order to further understand the context of contemporary Indigenous artists work, one must understand modern Indigenous art history. Farris argues, “contemporary art created by Native Americans, like art created by most people’s reaches into the past for some of its influences, and it is a product of its times” (p.253). Up until the 1960’s Indigenous art representation was relatively monolithic. The aesthetic had been primarily constructed in a plains/southwestern style. Traditional forms of art such as pottery, beading, carving, basketry and iconography from those regions came to define all Indigenous art (LaPena, 1992). Western forms of studio art were seldom associated with Indigenous artists and during that time Indigenous folks had little representation in museum and gallery spaces. The formation of the American Indian Institute of Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, NM in 1962 helped usher Indigenous fine artists into the mainstream (Traugott, 1992 ).
Artists at IAIA developed revolutionary works of art that reflected both the modern art practice as well as traditional art. This new institution provided the resources and gave the space for Indigenous artists to explore new mediums and ideas. Thus IAIA became an artistic hub that produced some of the most important Indigenous artist’s of the 20th century (Farris, 2005). Artists like Fritz Scholder and T.C Cannon came out of IAIA and produced work that influences Indigenous art today. The 1960s IAIA era was crucial because the art during that time completely redefined the indigenous art aesthetic. Artists during that time were portraying Indigenous people in a way that had never been done; they shied away from kitschy/romanticized renditions of art. Furthermore, Traugott (1992) argues that contemporary native art is an extension of what began in Santa Fe and is an amalgamation of pieces of the ancestral past as well as aspects of Western fine art.
The work of the Santa Fe school showed that Indigenous art could be conceptualized in a new way. The IAIA era helped spawn resurgence in traditional art, the early 80s saw a radical change in traditional works of art. Rachetter argues, “ Indigenous artists who worked primarily with traditional media began to adopt the social critique of contemporary art” (p.116). The success of artists coming out of Santa Fe demonstrated that contemporary traditional art could be sold and shown in spaces with Western studio art. Artists now have continued in this tradition and according to Rachetter “there is a growing movement of artists reclaiming the materials of their grandmothers, reinvigorating traditional spaces, and moving them from the past into the future” (p.115).
I self identify as an Indigenous person, academic, and artist (painter). My intersecting identities inform and influence my research interests and research goals. My goal as a researcher is to utilize my academic privilege to give back to the greater Indigenous community by producing collaborative useful knowledge. I center my research in a decolonizing community based praxis to achieve this goal. I made it a point to be as transparent as possible throughout the research process. I informed all the artists about my research intentions and plans with the data before I asked them to participate in this study. Co-authorship was the best method because it eliminates some of my privilege as a researcher and gives the artist the opportunity to engage with the data as well.
My research is a platform that I use to raise Indigenous voices and share the valuable work that community members do. Indigenous artists are an important part of Indigenous society yet their efforts are not always recognized in academic spaces/institutions. And there are not enough Indigenous researchers conducting research with Indigenous communities therefore I find it imperative to fill this void and create responsible and valuable research. I am biased because my indigeneity influences my worldview and informs how I conduct research with people. As the researcher in charge of this project I am well aware of the biases I bring to the table representing a Western institution of higher education. Nonetheless I wanted utilize my time, resources, and energy in a way that is worthwhile and would benefit those who participated as well.
I found a phenomenological method of data collection to be the most suitable for capturing the voices of the artists who participated. This project purposefully challenges traditional academic norms by providing an outlet for Indigenous artists to tell their story.
An integral part of my reflexive process was creating a piece of art that encompassed my thoughts and feelings about this research project. I created a mixed media work of art on a framed 18×16 canvas. I worked on this piece while I was gathering data in the field. The piece I produced is informed by my experience working on this project. I treated this piece as a conversation with myself and visually expressed some of my thoughts and feelings about the information I was coming into contact with.
For the purpose of this phenomenological study, I conducted loosely structured qualitative interviews with 5 indigenous artists. The artists were invited to participate through criterion sampling and were contacted via email with details about this project. This sampling procedure worked best for finding folks to participate, because in order to be eligible one must openly identify as an Indigenous artist who works within the Indigenous community. My insider status as an Indigenous artist provided me access to this population. I contacted artists within the southwest/west coast geographic region that I am familiar with. The artist sample population was recruited this way due to the time and geographic constraints of this project.
After an artist agreed to participate in the study, I followed up with a consent form informed each of the participants about my intentions with the project and plans with the data. I explained that co authorship was the best method of moving forward and that they were entitled to using the intellectual material produced. I later inquired to set up a time and date for the interview; all of the interviews were conducted in a space and during a time that was convenient for the participant. Four out of the five interviews were conducted in person and took place in the greater Los Angeles area; only one interview was done over the phone. The interviews were recorded on my phone and lasted in between 45 mins to 1-hour long. The participants were all asked a series of 15-20 pre written questions that were designed to address the research topic. I structured the interview like a conversation so the interview process would be less formal and would flow more like a conversation amongst friends. Therefore some less crucial questions were omitted from the interview due to the fluid nature of the conversation. After the interviews, instead of writing down notes I worked on pieces of art that captured my thoughts and feelings while in the field. The final byproduct of this effort manifested in the reflexive art piece I produced while working on this project.
In an effort to avoid ethical dilemmas I tried my best to provide complete transparency throughout the research process. I made sure to send each of the participants the questions I planned on asking them beforehand, so they could prepare or edit what I had sent them. I also sent the final transcripts to the artists before turning them in, I did this so the artists could edit what the said if they so please. I also gave the artists the option to use a pseudonym and remain anonymous. All refused and chose to go by their give name. I also plan on sending each of the artists a copy of the final research project so they could have it for future purposes.
I began my analysis by listening to the audio interviews one last time, listening to the recordings allowed me to focus on the conversation. And in this process I began to hear similar themes in different conversations, I took mental note of this and proceeded by reading through the transcripts. I read through all 5 of the transcripts and consciously chose not to make any marks or take notes with the first read. The second time I took a yellow highlighter and highlighting sections of the text that stuck out to me. I did this for each interview and I also wrote notes with highlighter in the margins. These notes marked themes that were popping up in the conversation. The yellow highlighter notes were my initial codes/themes. After reading through the transcripts for a second time and taking notes/highlighting, I found 5 themes that appeared in the majority of the conversations.
I took these five themes and created a color key to go with each of the categories. After creating the color key I read through each interview and began marking up sections with color pencils that corresponded with the color key/theme. I used the yellow highlighted sections from the previous passover to guide me in finding important sections in the text. This method of coding worked best for me because it allowed to me to color coordinate my data and important findings, this makes it easier for analyzing the data in its entirety.
The artists that participated in the study are in between the ages of 24-61 and openly identify as both Indigenous and an artist. I was able to work with 5 Indigenous artists from diverse tribal backgrounds like Tongva, Pueblo, Navajo, Purépecha, and Huichol. All of the artists that participated have been working in the Artfield and creating for at least 10 years. Three of the participants identified as female and two identified as male. Out of the five artists, four work with studio/fine art mediums and only one of the participants makes traditional art.
Jaque Fragua is a 32-year-old Pueblo mixed media artist from Jemez, NMM. Jaque has been creating art for over 15 years, in a variety of mediums and has shown his work internationally. Jaque is active within his tribal community and participates in Indigenous grassroots organizing. Melissa Govea is a 24-year-old Purépecha artist from East L.A. Melissa is a painter and is currently a sign-painting student at LA Trade Tech. The work she creates is inspired by her Purépecha heritage and is made to inspire young women of color. Cindy Dorame is a 61-year-old Tongva artist from Venice, CA. She has been creating art for over 30 years and works with traditional mediums. Cindy creates traditional gourd art and makes jewelry for her tribal community. Ty Harris is 24-year-old Navajo photographer and painter from Paige, AZ.
She has created art since her youth and is inspired by her tribal heritage and everyday life experiences. Joel Garcia is a 41-year-old Huichol artist from East L.A. Joel has created art for over 20 years and centers his artistic praxis in his Indigenous community, He considers himself an artist and cultural organizer.
Creating art is one way that Indigenous people connect to their ancestors and get in touch with their indigeneity. Artist Jaque Fragua touches on this,“ I think art has always had a connection to the spiritual and the very essence of what makes us who we are. So making art I think has always been human’s way of honoring our earth. Our mother earth, our creator and other things that exist in the natural world”. Art for Jaque is a spiritual endeavor and is a way to honor the life around him. For artist Melissa Govea creating art connects her to her distant tribal community and is the way she expresses her indigeneity. Melissa is the byproduct of Indigenous diaspora, she was raised in Los Angeles but she traces her Indigenous roots to Southern Mexico. Melissa states, “ Yeah we grew up knowing we were Indigenous, knowing our ancestors were Mexica and Purepecha. But we don’t really get to practice it and live in that lifestyle. So when I get the paint about my culture, my art is kind of like me reclaiming what I never really had”. P Melissa uses painting as a way to connect to her tribal community. Ty Harris is a Navajo photographer that takes photos as a means to connect with her ancestors. Photography is just one medium that Ty uses to artistically express her indigeneity, Ty states “We are creative people by birth and I feel like it runs in our blood. It’s a part of who we are, I feel like it’s a way that easier for a lot of us to communicate, express, and say what we have to say.”
Tongva artist Cindy Dorame creates traditional jewelry and gourd art to honor her ancestors and give back to her community. Cindy states, “ My role is to volunteer and do what I can do to help. I create art for gifts as gift giving within our tribe. If we have visitors coming and we want gifts to give I want to be able to do that”. Cindy creates art for her community in an altruistic way; she makes it a point to give the bulk of her work away. This form of gift giving is common in Indigenous communities and is a traditional custom. Cindy not only creates traditional art but also engages in traditional practices when dealing with the distribution of her artwork. The philosophy of Indigenous artists often times conflicts with western art norms, giving away art is uncommon in the western world but to Indigenous people it is commonplace. According to Cindy, “I would rather have traditional pieces made by native people. And if I can do that for my friends and family. I’m willing to do that”. Cindy engages in this praxis, because she feels that it is her obligation to make art and give it away since she is still able bodied and it is her tribal custom.
Jaque also creates artwork from an altruistic perspective, he states “In an altruistic way I like to say that I’m always going to make art that speaks to our people. It helps us understand each other because some of us don’t speak the same language but we’re still the same people. I feel like art is that universal language that a lot of us understand”. Jaque uses his art as a visual tool to connect Indigenous people from various tribal nations in a way that does not demand verbal communication. Melissa also uses her artistic platform to resist colonialism and give back to her community, she feels it is her role to share her art with people and give back in that capacity. Artist Joel Garcia does live silk screening and gives away free protest art at demonstrations. Joel makes it a point to leave his work unsigned; he says that his ancestors would never sign work and likes to follow in their tradition. Joel cares about giving away free art to community members, he is not concerned with the notoriety one gains when creating art. For Joel, the goal is to create art that benefits the urban tribal community.
The Western art world is dominated by white men and western art history has often ignored the contributions of Indigenous artists. Indigenous artists were alienated and marginalized for decades by their western contemporaries; this has led to distrust towards the western art world by some Indigenous artists. Ty for example does not associate with the term “artist” because she feels that it doesn’t fully capture her identity. Ty said, “I really don’t like to identify myself or portray myself as a certain type of artist. Because I feel like I’m a creative person and that expression can come out in so many different forms”. For Ty, the term “artist” is limiting because it is inevitably tied to the Western construction of an “artist”. Melissa also touched upon this during our interview; she stated “I’m challenging a lot of shit they don’t want to hear and think about and to me that makes me feel that I’m doing something right”. Melissa also feels that the label “artist” is restricting and is something that should be contested as opposed to embraced. Artist Joel Garcia shares a similar perspective; he said, “ Art is more insurgence than resistance. To be an insurgent is to change the political ways of community or change politics so if you can influence how they make decisions moving forward”.
Indigenous artists receive little institutional and educational support and encouragement to pursue careers in the arts. This is in part because art education in North America is modeled after a European/Western pedagogical framework that is rested in classist values. Indigenous artists often have to make due with what little resources they have. Jaque says, “that’s why I started with spray paint, painting in places, in the street was just accessible. I couldn’t afford to go back to art school anymore so my canvas changed. Even before art school that was already my canvas”. Jaque went to an arts college that was created to support Indigenous people yet the institution failed in supporting him economically. Jaques experience is not unique; many Indigenous artists experience something similar when navigating the academy.
The majority of Indigenous folks are working class and typically don’t have the resources to pay for western arts education. Economic limitations often inhibit Indigenous artists access to arts education. Another example is Melissa, she decided to forgo going to a traditional arts school. Melissa said this,“ It’s expensive and I don’t want to have loans and all of that. It wasn’t really accessible. So I was like, I’ve got to go to community college because it’s the closest thing”. Conventional art school is too expensive and is a financial risk for Melissa. Ty also expressed that she was curtailed from going to art school, she said, “I wanted to go to Art School I was even looking into it. I would have to say the factor that stopped me from going to an art school was my parents”. Ty’s parents were unable and not willing to support her as an artist, she claims “my perception is that a lot of parents don’t necessarily take their kids seriously as an artist. Not until they’ve done something big or made a lot of money…Especially being native you know that’s not really encouraged. We’re more encouraged to go to school for more like STEM learning like math and science… Were not really encouraged to be creative.” Several other artists mentioned that they were not encouraged to pursue careers in the arts by teachers and family members. Cindy also said that her family did not encourage her as an artist. According to Cindy, Art was not encouraged… I think it was a different time. My parents wanted you to get a job and stop messing around. At the time I feel like I had potential but it got squashed. It was difficult to not be encouraged.”
There are Indigenous artists working all over “Indian country”, the folks that were generous enough to give their time for this project make up a fraction of the fraction of people out there doing good work. Indigenous artists are thriving Despite systemic colonialism, institutional barriers, economic disadvantage, and familial distrust. The artist’s stories demonstrate resilience and the ongoing effort to decolonize Indian Country. The findings demonstrate that Art is a visual platform that Indigenous communities use to articulate community history, new struggles, and contemporary ways of being. Indigenous artists are at the forefront of engaging in decolonization, they use art to engage in community work and as a means to connect with their ancestors.
All the artists I interviewed create, engage, and conceptualize art in different yet interesting ways. Indigeneity was central in all the work they create, the way the artists express their indigeneity is fluid and contingent on one’s tribal history and art’s praxis.Furthermore,
the findings demonstrate that art has been used to contest colonialism in a number of creative and innovate ways. Cindy for example is contesting colonialism through her work by creating pieces of art the same way her ancestors have since time immemorial. This all may seem insignificant to the untrained western mind but there is power in creating traditional works of art and sharing them with the community. This practice is older than time itself. Colonization was designed to wipe out Indigenous art ways like this but Cindy and the other artists demonstrate that indigenous people are still here, thriving, and pushing artistic boundaries.
Time and resources were two of the main limitations of this study. This study was conducted over a semester, this time frame allows for minimal field research and expedited analysis. With a more generous timeline this study could be expanded to include more participants. There were only 5 participants in this study, which makes up a small portion of the indigenous creative community. The small population sample is a major limitation, those that participated are primarily from the Southwest and West Coast region. Therefore the applicability of the analysis and findings may be restricted to these two geographic areas. The artists that participated are my friends so there may be some bias with the information they articulated. For future studies a more unbiased population should be selected.
Conceptualizing contemporary Indigenous art as an extension of the ancestral past is key for understanding current works of art by Indigenous artists.The art tribal members produce is a reflection of the individual tribe itself as well as the collective native experience. In the future this project should expanded to include the voices of LGBTQIS/ Two Spirit Indigenous artists and more young artists. In sum, the artists spoke of accessibility issues, lack of institutional/family support for pursuing art, they rejected socially ascribed labels having to do with their artist identity and body of work. They also shared that they were influenced by western and traditional art forms and each spoke of drawing on their tribal community for constant inspiration. Art is more than just a means of self-expression for indigenous people; art evokes the usage of ancient knowledge in modern spaces and leads to the reproduction and usage of ancestral knowledge. Art it is a way of life because the process of creating is a conduit to the ancestral realm.
Beyerbach, Barbara. Ramalho, Tania. 2011. Activist Art In Social Justice Pedagogy:Engaging Students in Global Issues Through The Arts. CounterPoints Vol. 403.
Farris, Phoebe. 2005. Contemporary Native American Women Artists: Visual Expressions Of Feminism, the Environment, and Identity. Feminist Studies. Vol. 31 No.1
Farris, Phoebe. 2006. V isual Power :21st Century Native American Artists/Intellectuals. American Studies. Vol 46. No3/4
LaPena,Frank. 1992. Contemporary Northern California Native American Art. California History. Vol 71. No. 3. University of California Press.
Morris, Kate. 2014. Crash: Specters of Colonialism In Contemporary Indigenous Art. Art Journal. Vol.76 No.2
Rachetter, S. Farrell. 2017. Tuft Life: Stitching Sovereignty In Contemporary Indigenous Art. Art Journal. Vol 76. No.2
Traugott, Joseph. 1992 . Native American Artists And the Postmodern Cultural Divide. Art Journal Vol. 51 No.3 36-43
March 12 – May 31, 2020 Soul Center for the Arts
Selected works represented by Soul Center for the Arts