Earlier this summer, the artist Eric-Paul Riege was in a sunlit gallery of Bard College’s Hessel Museum of Art, twisting and turning around his woven artworks that hung from the ceiling. Visitors were encouraged to do so, too, but he was the only one who seemed to heed his own invitation. At one point, he knelt down on the ground, using his hands to grab the tassels of one work and pull it toward him, its large fiber circle tilting away from the ground as he did so. The sculpture’s threads made hushed crunches alongside the jingles of Riege’s outfit.
The Diné artist’s pieces were part of a series called “jaatłoh4Ye’iitsoh,” which he has said can be translated to “earring for the big god.” He’s stated that all his art is active, even when it seems static, thanks to the gravity that holds it down to earth. These are performance pieces, even though they appear simply to be sculptures.
A similar contradiction runs throughout many of the artworks in the show that contains these works, “Indian Theater: Native Performance, Art, and Self-Determination since 1969.” This exhibition’s title suggests a sprawling performance art survey, but the result is something other than that—and that’s actually a good thing.
Much of the works curator Candice Hopkins (Carcross/Tagish First Nation) has included are sculptures, photographs, or videos; some have been activated at various points in the show’s run, though most remain the same. Note the comma separating “performance” and “art” in the show’s name. She’s suggesting that, for a number of Native artists working right now, performance doesn’t only take the form of art. It can also be a component of everyday living that allows them to hide and reveal parts of their identities, undertake rituals imbued with meaning, and craft statements about their peoples’ oppression by colonialists, both past and current.
“Indian Theater” is a rarity in more senses than one. Sizable shows devoted to Indigenous artists are still unusual in US institutions—not just in ones like this museum in Annandale-on-Hudson, two hours outside New York City, but ones all across the country. And smart group shows, particularly ones with lofty conceptual goals, are becoming an endangered species in museums, which can sometimes seem fearful of intellectual posturing, opting for empty-calorie blockbusters as a result. This show feels like a treat because its guiding ideas are so knotty.
Sometimes, “Indian Theater” can grow blurry. It’s hindered by gangly, overlong wall texts that aren’t always necessary, and some of its works’ relations to the curatorial conceit are vague at best. What the show lacks in clarity, it makes up for in challenging art.
Below, a look at the finest works included in this exhibition.
Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Paperdolls for a Post-Columbian World, 2021
Arguably no other artist has deserved the recognition she has gotten this year more than Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, who became the first Native artist to have a retrospective at the Whitney Museum in April. Smith, who is now at work on a survey of contemporary Indigenous art for the National Gallery of Art (opening September 22), offers further proof of her greatness with a recent work in this show. The artist, a Salish member of the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Nation, is here presenting a grouping of paintings recalling images that are folded onto paper dolls. Each recalls a kind of violence wrought against Native peoples: their forced conversion of some to Christianity during the 19th century, for example, and the infection of others with smallpox around the same time, possibly due to contaminated blankets provided by the US.
Smith’s prim presentation style recalls the kind of arts and crafts seen in the same elementary schools in the US, where kids are taught myths about Indigenous people, particularly when it comes to Thanksgiving. Yet Smith suggests that the pain and suffering associated with the histories invoked here do not entirely define Native Americans like herself. You can dress them up in colonial garb or a headdress, she seems to say, but you’re not likely to know much at all if you only relate to Indigenous people through traumatic pictures of their past.
Dana Claxton, “Headdress” Photographs, 2019
Clothes recur throughout this show in pieces that ask viewers to consider how much—or, in some cases, how little—one’s garments communicate their heritage and beliefs. In the case of Lakota filmmaker Dana Claxton’s “Headdress” photographs, wearable objects are donned to uphold the richness of Indigenous cultures. Her four sitters (one is the artist Jeneen Frei Njootli, whose work also appears “Indian Theater”) are pictured wearing beaded sacks, extravagant headdresses, feathered necklaces, and more. These objects are layered on so densely that they cover each subject’s eyes, allowing their culture to act as a shield from viewers’ leery gazes.
Claxton backlights each photograph, drawing on a method of presentation more commonly seen in clothing stores than in art galleries. Brands like the Gap and Levi’s have long sold the idea that we are what we wear; Claxton seems to have no disagreements with that statement.
Kay WalkingStick, Feet Series Arrangement, 1972
The influence of Kay WalkingStick, now in her late 80s, abounds throughout this show. A citizen of the Cherokee nation with Cherokee/Anglo heritage, she has been a guide to many because she has posited abstraction as a Native American form of visual expression, contrary to the popular narrative that Western Europeans invented it. She once went so far as to say, “Native women were the first abstractionists.” (In a possible acknowledgement that may have been right, the editors of Janson’s History of Art added her to the textbook in the ’90s, making her the first Native artist to enter its pages, according to American Indian Magazine.)
Ironically, one of the finest works by her included in the show, Feet Series Arrangement, appears at first to have little to do with her identity. It’s six-image grid of pairs of feet, each painted in clashing shades of orange, pink, green, mustard, and lilac, that appear to dance. Made during an era when WalkingStick was finding the true meaning of her female perspective, these feet seem to belong to a person so liberated that she has evaded representation. Notably, in the last image, the feet seem to be walking off into the distance, away from anyone’s gaze.
Tanya Lukin Linklater, Event Scores for Afognak Alutiit 1-3 (Abridged), 2016–20
The most achingly beautiful work in this show is a soundless video composed solely of black text set against a white background. The words that appear in this work by Tanya Lukin Linklater (Alutiiq/Sugpiaq) can be tough to parse, yet across its few sentences, a sense of loss emerges with clarity. “What are we tethered to? What holds us together?” the artist’s text asks. “When I am home on our island I sense that the land exudes grief.” Then another clipped phrase follows: “This feeling.” The other words fade away as those two remain on screen.
Lukin Linklater’s title suggests that the text in her video may function like word scores: loose instructions for a performance to be enacted. Yet the phrases rarely stick around long enough for viewers to comprehend how to even perform them. The disappearance of these sentences mirrors the dying out of Native languages and the people who knew how to communicate using them. Artworks like this one are part of the effort to make sure they do not disappear for good.
asinnajaq, Rock Piece, 2015
This hypnotic video documents a performance in which asinnajaq (Inuk) lies beneath a smattering of rocks. She reclines on the ground, motionless at first; you may not even notice her there, since the rocks blend in with others arrayed around this beach. Then she emerges, only to return to her former state because the video is looped. Rock Piece is about the cycle of life, and it is especially notable in this show, where death is implied rather than outright depicted. The possibility that asinnajaq may drown under the rocks she has selected feels real as one watches it. That she is able to withstand their pressure is a testament to her mental and physical strength.