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Nasher’s ‘Art for a New Understanding’ is a turning point for exhibitions of Native art

Dana Claxton’s “Cultural Belongings” is one of the works by Native artists highlighted in the Nasher Museum of Art’s newest exhibition, on view until January 12, 2020.
Dana Claxton’s “Cultural Belongings” is one of the works by Native artists highlighted in the Nasher Museum of Art’s newest exhibition, on view until January 12, 2020.

To Marshall N. Price, the Nasher Museum of Art’s newest exhibition, “Art for a New Understanding: Native Voices, 1950s to Now,” is “a paradigm-shifting exhibition in many, many ways.”

The exhibition, which Price curated, is the first ever major exhibition of contemporary Native American art in the world. Price, the curator of modern and contemporary art at the Nasher, has been with the exhibition since its conception during a curatorial roundtable in Crystal Bridges, Ark., where the show first opened in 2018. Although the artists in the exhibit have been featured in other shows, this is the first time these artists have been displayed together in an exhibition specifically focused on contemporary Native American art. As Price pointed out during a media preview, “one of the major goals of this exhibition is to bring these artists into the mainstream.”

Art for a New Understanding: Native Voices, 1950s to Now” charts the development of Native American art both chronologically and thematically, and showcases around 60 pieces of art from 40 different indigenous nations throughout the United States and Canada. Price explained that the exhibition tackles poignant themes in Native American history, including “sovereignty and exclusion, land and water rights, representation, and trying to negate persistent negative stereotypes.”

“Art for a New Understanding” uses various forms of art — such as painting, textiles, performance art, video, photography and sculpture — to create a colorful, vibrant and cohesive story about Native American experiences. The first gallery of the exhibition focuses on a turning point in Native American art history. Prior to the 1950s, opportunities for Native artists were limited to working within traditional boundaries with media such as hide or weaving, or attending The Studio School in Santa Fe, N.M., which was run by Dorothy Dunn, a white woman. 

“[Dunn] really imposed a certain style on Native students of flat, figurative, representational figures,” Price said. 

In the mid-1950s, an artist named Oscar Howe, whose 1954 work “Dance of the Heyoka” opens the exhibition, wrote a letter that emphasized looking forward in Native art instead of backward, marking a break from the restrictive limitations placed on Native artists. The same gallery also features textiles by Lloyd Kiva New, a fashion designer and early instructor at the Institute for American Indian Arts, the school for Native American art that went on to supplant the Dorothy Dunn school. Price points to New’s fabrics as an example of Native artists creating their own pedagogy.

The exhibition also challenges the way Native Americans and their myriad cultures are typically presented in art and history museums. One of the featured pieces is James Luna’s “Artifact Piece” — originally a piece of performance art, the Nasher exhibition includes a reproduction of the work and documentary photos of the original performance. In Luna’s performance, which took place at the San Diego Museum of Man, he placed himself in a display case, where he had labeled various parts of his body. 

“Visitors would walk right up to the case and look at James Luna’s body lying there, not realizing it was a living, breathing human being,” Price said. He went on to explain that the piece criticized “the way in which indigenous peoples are presented in museums: in an ethnographic or anthropological type of way.”

The purpose of “Art for a New Understanding” aligns closely with the Nasher’s larger mission to create platforms for marginalized artists. As Price said, “the Nasher takes great pride in the fact that we’ve been able to expand the art historical canon,” and its newest exhibition is an enthralling testament to that mission. 

“Art for a New Understanding: Native Voices, 1950s to Now” is on display at the Nasher Museum of Art and will run until Jan. 12, 2020.