There was much to commend in Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists, a survey of one thousand years of art by Indigenous women through 125 works. The exhibition didn’t rely on the usual curatorial model, in which non-Native curators assemble Indigenous art based on geographic or formal affinities, sometimes with a small group of Indigenous advisers to legitimize their efforts. At the Minneapolis Institute of Art, curators Jill Ahlberg Yohe and Teri Greeves, the latter a Kiowa artist, worked with nineteen advisers, the majority of whom were Indigenous artists, curators, and scholars. Their endeavor centered consensus: The advisers not only determined who would be part of the exhibition but also coauthored the catalogue. The curators also made an important claim: that the majority of Native American cultural belongings and artifacts held in museums were made by women—something Yohe discovered after conducting extensive collections research between 2009 and 2011. The opportunity to unpack the implications of this assertion itself made this exhibition noteworthy and a starting point for new scholarship.
Just outside the exhibition’s doors was parked a ’85 Chevy El Camino detailed by Rose Simpson, an artist from Santa Clara Pueblo, with a black-on-black pattern popularized with the pottery of Maria Martinez (1887–1980) of San Ildefonso Pueblo. Nearby was a large pot by Martinez. This evocative pairing set the tone for the rest of the exhibition, which moved between time periods, sometimes to great effect, other times without clear intention. (Though the exhibition was arranged around three themes—legacy, relationships, and power—the broadness of these categories and the wide time span of the corresponding works lessened their utility.)
The exhibition was filled with the handmade, particularly objects intended to adorn the body. An ornately beaded Dakhóta/Nakoda outfit made in 2006, installed near the entrance, spoke to the importance of carrying forward aesthetic techniques and ideas, in this case for hundreds of years. Behind the outfit were three works: a Pueblo pot, a stylized photograph of the Tewa Pueblo deity Clay Lady, and the strongest painting in the exhibition, by Dyani White Hawk (Sicangu Lakota). While the Pueblo works have a clear relationship, White Hawk’s painting, from an entirely different aesthetic tradition, expands on Lakota quillwork, particularly as used for traditional men’s shirts, which can be so intricately covered with quills that they appear woven. It would have been wise to instead pair White Hawk’s work with the geometric drawings of Mary Sully (Dakhóta). Sully’s practice is steeped in the traditions of beadwork, quillwork, and hide painting, and is considered an example of “antiprimitivism”; she portrays popular figures of the 1930s as well as reservation life, often in compositions of three panels, where the lowest panel is distilled entirely into repeating patterns. Sully’s and White Hawk’s works demonstrate how Indigenous aesthetics can pierce conventions of abstraction and modernism, and show that Indigenous women’s material practices have always generatively negotiated abstraction and representation.
Indeed, at times, the exhibition suffered from trying to cover too much ground. Intriguing inclusions such as the single drawing by Sully and a neoclassicist marble sculpture from 1872 by Edmonia Lewis (Mississauga and African American) were orphaned and lacked context. Lewis’s few remaining sculptures, which often represent the intersections of African American and Indigenous histories, could have introduced a note of historical complexity. Both artists deserve in-depth surveys.
At the exhibition’s entrance, birch-bark baskets were filled with cedar, sage, and sweetgrass. Discreet wall labels explained that Native visitors could use these natural materials to give offerings in small baskets tucked into the corners of the exhibition. Some clearly understood the protocol and left behind neatly tied bundles of the medicine. Others ignored the instructions and exposed the gaps in their knowledge, leaving behind dollar bills, crumpled admission tickets, and gum wrappers. At a time when institutions are reevaluating the place of Native art in their collections and in art history, it is vital to develop models of exhibition making informed by Indigenous perspectives. Emphasizing the consensus of women, for example, is a long-standing norm in Indigenous communities, and a provocative mandate for museums. Here, it led to unexpected inclusions, such as one drawing by Andrea Carlson in a room of more traditional works; its placement and complex imagery linked the collection of Indigenous belongings to cultural cannibalism.
— Candice Hopkins