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Christi Belcourt (Michif), The Wisdom of the Universe, 2014, acrylic on canvas, Collection Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; Purchased with funds donated by Greg Latremoille, 2014, 2014/6. © Christi Belcourt.

Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists Feb. 21-May 17, 2020 Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum 1661 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON — Women have always been a major force behind Native American art, even while most have gone unrecognized for their brilliant works.

A new major exhibit, Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists, is rectifying some of those wrongs with a nationally touring collection. Friday, it makes its third opening at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. A free curator talk happens at noon on opening day. The show will be on view at Renwick through May 17. 

From there, the four-city tour makes its final stop at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa from June 28–Sept. 20, 2020.

The Renwick Gallery will showcase 82 artworks, spanning ancient times through today. The styles encompass a variety of media — including textiles, ceramics, sculpture, time-based media and photography. Along with that, the multi-lingual exhibition also includes wall text, audio recordings and labels presented in not only English, but also the artist’s Native American or First Nations languages. 

Robyn Kennedy, Renwick Gallery manager, coordinated the presentation in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, Anya Montiel, curator of American and Native American Women’s art and craft, recently joined the museum’s staff, and is thrilled to be a part of such a historic event.

“One of the most revelatory aspects of the exhibition for visitors is the realization that most Native artwork is made by women—including many of the baskets, ceramics, weavings and regalia held within tribal communities and museum collections,” Montiel said in a statement. “This exhibition centers these artworks into a richly woven presentation that spans geography, time and medium. It is perfectly fitting that an exhibition, which celebrates makers and their creative expressions in forms that are expansive and innovative, is on view at the Renwick Gallery, the nation’s premier showcase of craft.”

Stephanie Stebich, the Margaret and Terry Stent Director at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, said in statement she’s thrilled to host such a trailblazing event.

“We are honored to present this groundbreaking and bold exhibition, designed by and for Native women artists, that showcases their powerful voices and artistic traditions,” Stebich said. “We are also delighted to work with our sister Smithsonian museum, the National Museum of the American Indian, in offering dynamic programming to explore questions of modern Native identity and artistic practice. This exhibition also reflects the important work of the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative focused on amplifying women’s voices, reaching new audiences and empowering future generations.”

According to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the four-city tour “celebrates the achievements of these Native women and establishes their rightful place in the art world.” The critically-acclaimed exhibit spotlights the artists’ individual contributions, which have been largely unrecognized for centuries.

Hearts of Our People was carefully co-curated by Jill Ahlberg Yohe, associate curator of Native American Art at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and Teri Greeves, an independent curator and member of the Kiowa Nation. The collection is split into three main categories: Legacy, Relationships and Power. In a statement, event organizers broke down each of the themes attendees can expect to see:

Legacy examines the way in which Native women artists acknowledge their lineage by creating works that simultaneously embody the experience of previous generations, address the present moment and speak to the future. Fiber work by D.Y. Begay (Navajo) and sculptural works by Cherish Parrish (Ottawa/Pottawatomi) are featured in this section of the exhibition.

Relationships explores the concept of connectivity and reciprocity that exists beyond the human world to include animals, plants, places and living and nonliving elements. Christi Belcourt’s (Michif) painting “The Wisdom of the Universe'' and the intricate beadwork of Nellie Two Bear Gates (Gathering of Clouds Woman, Iháƞktȟuƞwaƞna Dakhóta, Standing Rock Reservation) highlight this link. 

Power encompasses works created for diplomacy and influence to empower others and for the empowerment of oneself. Photography by Rebecca Belmore (Anishinaabe) and Rosalie Favell (Métis [Cree/English]), adornments by Keri Ataumbi (Kiowa/Comanche) and Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone–Bannock), and shoes embellished by Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone–Bannock) represent the spiritual, social and political power Native women hold.

Along with the accompanying catalog for the tour, a book, Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists, is available for purchase in the museum store. Free public programs are also happening, at the Renwick Gallery, visit their site for the full schedule.

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