Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Dances with High-Heeled Sneakers

Great Lakes Girls by Teri Greeves
I had not planned to write a third installment on contemporary American Indian art, but today I came across something that made me change my mind.

The New York Times recently reviewed an exhibit of American Indian art, and that review has irrirtated some people (read about some of them here).  The reviewer, Ken Johnson, was unhappy with the curators of Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains at the Brooklyn Museum.  He took them to task for, it seems, not being tragic enough.

The review complains that the gift shop is located in the midst of the exhibit, so to see all of the items on display you must pass through the gift shop.  Like nearly every museum gift shop I have seen, this one contains some kitschy versions of the works on display.  What traveling exhibit does not allow you to buy Picasso pencils or Monet magnets? 

Johnson disapproves: "Considering the tragic, still painful history evoked, if not directly addressed, by the exhibition, you’d think that the organizers would have given some thought to locating this tasteless concession elsewhere."

Johnson dwells on and praises the "historical" exhibits, which display items that would have been found on the Plains before contact with Europeans: "Lavishly decorated war outfits and weapons, women’s dresses, saddles, storage bags, baby carriers, children’s toys, sporting goods and much more attest to a wonderfully soulful and inventive artistic vitality."  Meanwhile, the contemporary exhibits puzzle him.

21st Century Traditional: Beaded Tipi
The first item a visitor sees is a four-foot-tall tipi by Teri Greeves, 21st Century Traditional: Beaded Tipi.  Johnson dismisses it as something "misplaced from a gift shop" and as a "cheerfully saccharine expression of Indian culture today."  He does nort explain what is saccharine about it.  He says its connection to the rest of the exhibit is unclear.  Blogger America Meredith explains this for him:

Sorry, the relationship is painfully obvious and the title even underlines the point. The figures are all Plains Indians in 21st century dress—some Kiowa, some intertribal—and the piece shows that songs, dances, familial relations have maintained continuity over the centuries, as have Plains peoples relationships to celestial forces, despite changing technology, as exemplified by the microphone. Miniature tipis have an historical antecedent as young girl’s toys, but in the 20th century, they have increasingly been commissioned by museums. Just as the tipi is portable, the miniature tipi is a portable expression of Plains culture. The piece is upbeat, but that is part of the message: Kiowa people are alive and have much to celebrate.  

If Greeves' small tipi bothers him, what does he think of her beaded, high-heel Converse sneakers?  I think they are simultaneously beautiful and hilarious. 

Buffalo-horn spoon by Kevin Pourier
He seems perplexed by other exhibits that mix the contemporary with the traditional.  He does not know what to make of a buffalo-horn spoon by Kevin Pourier that features geometric patterns similar to M.C. Escher's work -- which won an award at the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts show in 2008.  He writes:

The display suggests that there is no important difference between the old and the new. But how can that be so? The Plains Indian culture that gave rise to these kinds of objects was practically destroyed by the United States government’s campaign to clear land for settlement by white people over a century ago.

Blending the old with the new does NOT suggest there is no important difference between them.  There can be quite important distinctions between them that a more sensitive and informed viewer can see.  But Johnson gives himself away when he says he expects only tragedy to be displayed.  When he says those Plains cultures were "practically destroyed," it seems he really means "destroyed."  He does not understand it when he sees their persistence and their adaptation.  It seems that for him the modern and the traditional cannot connect -- but if they cannot, how is there any survival?  If they cannot, how is there any continuity?

Those Plains cultures survived the attempts to destroy them.  And Plains artists have incorporated their 21st century lives into their art work, which shows important signs of connection with the art work of their ancestors -- and this is an important point -- JUST AS THE ARTISTS DO IN WHATEVER CULTURE KEN JOHNSON BELONGS TO.

Johnson seems to be one of those critics/viewers who insist on a notion of "cultural purity" that they would never require of their own traditions or communities.

Johnson seems guilty of what I wrote about in my previous posting: trying to trap American Indians into a past and refusing them a living presence in today's United States.  He wants to respect the "still painful history," but that history isn't his.  It is as if he wants to say he knows American Indian history better than the American Indian artists whose work he reviews.

His fascination with the historical items in the museum exhibit suggests he possesses a "bourgeois nostalgia" for American Indians, which is the term given it by Gerald Vizenor.  It would seem the only role available to the American Indian is as a tragic character in what Vizenor also calls "the pageantry and portraiture of dominance."  Although Johnson laments the violence committed against those Plains cultures, he seems invested in tragedy being the only narrative allowed for them.

Not humor.

Not persistence.

Not adaptation.

Only tragedy.

Fortunately, Johnson is wrong.


  1. I agree with your critique of Ken Johnson's review of the exhibit _Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains_ at the Brooklyn Museum. When I read the review in _The New York Times_, I realized that Johnson does not know anything about contemporary American Indians and prefers to keep them as relics in the historical past.

  2. GREAT article. what an idiotic reviewer, but all too common an attitude. people from diverse ethnic cultures have just as much right to incorporate elements of their culture with elements of modern, pop, contemporary and even historical western culture in their artistic expression. just like i as a spam-on-white-bread american who is interested in and can learn from and appreciate aspects of the cultural expressions of many peoples throughout the world and can and do incorporate those elements in my own culture. we live in a postmodern world and we ALL get to live in this world and we ALL get to use it as we see fit. mr. johnson presumably finds his rights to visit this museum and to write about it as sacrosanct. also hilarious is his lauding of the 1900 horse mask object using what at the time were modern graphic images of the american flag. he even accuses the organizers of the exhibit of 'talking down' to the audience, doubly ironic when even as an art critic he seems to need someone to 'talk down' to him to explain the contemporary native american art. perhaps they sent the wrong reviewer to this exhibit!

  3. Ken is obviously out of touch with modern day Native culture. I remember learning to bead by beading my Keds, Coasters, and Converse (Chuck's) sneakers. In some areas you can even buy shoes like these at pow wows. I wonder what he would think of the beaded Zippo lighters. Tragic?