Arizona Republic




Author: Richard Nilsen, The Arizona Republic
Estimated printed pages: 7


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Artist Fritz Scholder once spoke to a group of young Native American students.
"Stop painting Indians," he told them.

Galleries were full of "traditional" Native American art, and Scholder, who had made a national reputation by painting Indians, felt stereotyped by the label, imprisoned by the expectations of being an "Indian artist."

"I remember Fritz talking about being an artist before being an Indian artist," Phoenix artist Steve Yazzie said.

Scholder didn't want to be ghettoized in a limiting category.

Yazzie and 14 other contemporary artists of mixed Native/non-Native backgrounds from the United States, Canada and Mexico make up a new show at the Heard Museum that looks at the way a younger generation of Indians have transcended the issues Scholder felt diminished by.

"Remix: New Modernities in a Post-Indian World" demonstrates the way some Native Americans can, indeed, define themselves as artists first.

That definition is part of a sea change in culture over the past 10 years. Where once Native American artists felt compelled to define themselves against the mainstream, mostly White, culture, they now feel free to engage as part of the global -- mostly non-White -- culture. Where before they drew a line of exclusivity, they now open up to an inclusive diversity. It's a Tiger Woods world.

It's what writer Eleanor Heartney, in the catalog that accompanies the show, calls the "Age of Hybridity."

"These artists represent an inescapable reality of contemporary life, namely the hybrid nature of all identity," she says. "The artists in 'Remix' favor a more promiscuous approach to art and identity. They express a fluid sense of identity, which affirms that there is no such thing as ethnic purity."

Yazzie, for instance, is Navajo and Laguna on his father's side, French, Welsh and Hungarian on his mother's.

"I've come to terms with being in the middle and being mixed race," he said. "That's what my work for 'Remix' is all about."

Scholder, who died in 2005, faced the same issue a decade ago. He was Luiseno on his mother's side and German-American on his father's. When his art left behind the Indian subject matter for which he became famous, he briefly proclaimed himself to be a "German artist," although that was no more descriptive of his work than "Indian."

Heard Museum curator Joe Baker is Delaware, Dutch and English.

"That's in terms of blood," he said. "But I have many other influences beyond genetic. And that's the point of this exhibition. We are all, in today's world, products of hybridized experience."

'Identity politics'

Times have changed. It used to be that Native American artists emphasized the separateness of their Indianness.

In the 1980s and '90s, Native American political activism tended to focus on the question of authenticity -- who was really an Indian -- and the assertion of Native political rights. The political commitment of those artists and activists made the current generation's wider engagement possible.

"We shouldn't bash identity politics too much," Heartney said. "It was useful at the time in reminding us that art isn't universal and there's not a single standard of quality. It was useful for that, but it rigidified and became another thing. I remember a performance by (artist) James Luna (Luiseno), who said, 'I don't want to be an Indian anymore.' "

(Luna is one of the contemporary artists whose work addresses many things, not just Native identity. It's about what he calls "hightechpostmodernsurrealisticsubculture.")

"These artists participate in the artistic dialogues of the larger culture," Heartney said. "Not just rediscovering their Native roots, but very much attuned to the larger debates in the art world."

Shifting values

With the Native Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, Congress meant to give Native Americans a means to defend "the tradition that as an Indian you have significant rights and privileges, a kind of tribal copyright, unwritten but there by way of inheritance," said Gerald McMaster, one of the curators of the show and curator of Canadian Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. "But that doesn't translate to contemporary art. Under the old way of looking at it, it was no longer a discussion about art, but about how you were defined as a Native artist."

That is, about whether you could legitimately claim to be Indian. The question of the art became secondary.

It is refreshing, he says, that with such artists as those in "Remix," "the issue of Indianness is not the Number 1 question for them. They're interested in other things."

For McMaster, "the making of an identity is a creative act of interpreting, sifting and generating ideas and experiences for both the artist and all members of the community."

He is a full-blooded Cree but now is a citizen of the Blackfoot Nation: "As if I were born German but moved to Indonesia," said McMaster, who calls himself a "mutant Ninja-Injun."

"I've been an urban Indian since the age of 9."

He's also part of the Hybrid Planet.

"I'm comfortable with the 'world out there,' " McMaster said. "Identity is very interesting, and we realize that our identities shift. There is the 'Capital I' identity, and that's what we present to the world, but there are a lot of other I's in there, too -- father, male, Cree, husband, human."

These aren't exclusive identities, but overlapping circles in a Venn diagram.

"Sometimes I just want to be a father," he said.

International reach

These artists are just as aware of what's happening in Berlin or Prague as what's happening in Santa Fe.

"We're looking for international exposure," Yazzie said, "so I don't think Santa Fe is going to work for me."

Commercial galleries naturally want to sell work, he acknowledges, so, perhaps museums are the better venue for art that isn't meant as commodity.

Yazzie, who just returned from London, says he has joined a new collective, called "Post Commodity," with Cherokee artist Kade Twist and video artist Nathan Young (Pawnee/Delaware/Kiowa).

"We went to the Czech Republic," Yazzie said, "and it was an interesting experience. We were near the border with Austria and doing an installation in a small village that had to do with border issues, like that the ones we have here with Mexican immigration and how the Tohono O'odham nation (straddles) the border in southern Arizona."

Questions of immigration and borders aren't just a U.S. issue, but something that resonates around the world.

"This summer I was in Venice for the Biennale," McMaster said, "and last month at Documenta in Germany. (The Biennale and Documenta are two of the world's biggest showcases for contemporary art.) "What is exciting is the world that is coming, what is being created everywhere in the world today.

"What I'm seeing from these countries, even like China, is so much excitement coming out of there, or Istanbul. It's all influenced by what is going on in the world, in the new media."

"Remix" is a joint venture between the Heard and the George Gustav Heye Center in New York, which is part National Museum of the American Indian. The show will travel to New York after it closes in Phoenix.

"These artists all have deeply held opinions, world views formed at the intersection of traditional and Postmodern expression, and an urgency to find media and language to express complex ideas," said John Haworth, director of public programs at the Heye Center

"Their work speaks about geographic, generational, cultural and psychological boundaries. They explore the mix of high and low, popular and fine, historic and contemporary, communal and universal."

Baker, the Heard curator emphasizes the inclusiveness of this new direction.

"The human race is fascinating, complex and interesting, and I think our diversity is a fact of life and in interesting fact of life," Baker said. "I'm curious about the world and my expectation of others is that they would share that curiosity."

'Remix: New Modernities in a Post-Indian World'

When: Saturday through April 27. 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.

Where: The Heard Museum, 2301 N. Central Ave., Phoenix.

Admission: $10, $9 for seniors, $5 for students, $3 for ages 6-12, free for children younger than 6.

Details: (602) 252-8848,

'Remix' artists

"Remix" comprises work by 15 very different artists.

Dustinn Craig (White Mountain Apache/Navajo), born in 1975, lives in Mesa. Finds a parallel between Native culture and that of skateboarders.

Fausto Fernandez (Mexican / American), born in 1975, lives in Phoenix. Collages

sewing patterns, maps and blueprints with painting.

Luis Gutierrez (Mexican / American), born in 1969, lives in Phoenix. Discovered his love of Mexican imagery while studying in London.

David Hannan (Metis), born in 1971, lives in Toronto. His installations are about relation to the land while adapting to an urban life.

Gregory Lomayesva (Hopi / Hispanic), born in 1971, lives in Santa Fe. His paintings combine Hopi and pop imagery.

Brian Miller (Mohawk), born in 1969, lives in Acworth, N.H. Crisp black-and-white photographs create a new mythology of contemporary life.

Franco Mondini-Ruiz (Tejano / Italian) born in 1961, lives in San Antonio. His small canvases look at contemporary culture.

Kent Monkman (Cree / English / Irish), born in 1965, lives in Toronto. Satirizes 19th-century popular imagery of Indians with naturalistic painting.

Nadia Myre (Anishinaabe), born in 1974, lives in Saint-Andre d'Argenteuil, Quebec. Canoe half birch bark, half aluminum, mixes cultures.

Alan Natachu (Zuni / Laguna), born in 1980, lives in Madison, Wis. Video artist uses imagery of video games.

Hector Ruiz (Kickapoo/Mexican-American), born in 1971, lives in Phoenix. Hand-carved sculpture uses border imagery.

Anna Tsouhlarakis (Navajo / Creek / Greek) born in 1977, lives in Washington, D.C. Video looks at dance cross-culturally.

Kade Twist (Cherokee) born in 1971, lives in Tempe. Video art looks at the Cherokee diaspora in metaphor and image.

Bernard Williams (African-American/Native ancestry) born in 1964, lives in Chicago and New York. Creates a wall-size "chart" of cutout wooden glyphs and symbols.

Steven Yazzie (Navajo / Laguna / Welsh), born in 1970, lives in Phoenix. Squared off hubcaps organized in a grid on a waterbed comments on urban growth.

See Sidebar: "'Indian' art"

Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-8823.