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Forms of Exchange: Art of Native Peoples from the Edward J. Guarino Collection

April 28 - September 3, 2006


(above: Janet Kigusiuq, Untitled (Scenes of Inuit Life), 1999, Graphite and colored pencil on paper, 20 3/4 x 29 3/4 inches)


From the time that European explorers and settlers first set foot in North America, they began to acquire works produced by Native hands. Pueblo-made pots served the needs of the Spanish in the Southwest; wampum belts recorded treaties between Whites and the Iroquois in the Northeast; Inuit sculptures were collected by explorers, whalers, and missionaries in the Canadian Arctic. Native peoples responded to the challenge of foreign occupation in complex ways that are charted in the history of their artifacts. European glass beads replaced those made of bone, shell, and stone; imported calico fabrics and American flags stimulated design innovations in various media; the Inuit adopted printmaking, an art form entirely new to them.

The creative ability of Native peoples to transform new ideas and materials is embodied in the Southwestern pottery, Inuit sculptures and images, and Iroquois beadwork and baskets of the new exhibit, Forms of Exchange: Art of Native Peoples from the Edward J. Guarino Collection, being shown April 28 - September 3, 2006, at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. Drawn from an outstanding private collection in the Hudson River Valley, Forms of Exchange includes forty-seven works by historic and contemporary Native artists, dating from 1100 C.E. to the present. Guest curator and Vassar College professor of art Karen Lucic collaborated on the exhibit with her students in the seminar, The Politics of Display: Exhibiting Native American Art. (right: Susan Folwell, Cylindrical jar with carved and painted Northwest Coast-style designs, 2005, Acrylic and wood stain on native clay, 11 3/8 x 6 7/8 inches)

"A century ago, scholars and collectors were convinced that Native culture was destined to pass away in the face of civilization's progress," said Lucic. "On the contrary, the works in Forms of Exchange demonstrate the enduring vitality of Native art, and that it continues to evolve into the twenty-first century."

Linguists often note that Native languages actually have no word for "art," yet aesthetic decisions inform every aspect of the works in this exhibition. In their original context, Native artifacts were inseparable from use -- not meant for a museum or another static setting. Moreover, both sacred and non-ceremonial objects reflected a spiritual dimension, and this endures in Native societies.

Many contemporary makers describe their creative process as more important than the final product. The goal of all life -- including creative endeavor -- is to "walk in beauty," as the Navajo say. By the late-nineteenth century, however, most Native peoples were thoroughly entwined in mainstream settler culture, buying mass-produced goods rather than making their own.

Concurrently, they increased their production of objects for sale to others. As the market for Native crafts expanded, a new category of "fine art" developed, instigated largely by Native women's efforts. Maria Martinez and Nampeyo were two Pueblo women whose works became eagerly sought by collectors, and by 1920, they were the first Pueblo potters to sign their creations. Their Inuit counterpart Kenojuak Ashevak earned institutional recognition, and in 1974 became the first Inuit artist elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Art. Yet despite this evolution toward Westernized definitions and practices of art, a distinctive indigenous identity survives in Native work, sustained by ties to kin and community and expressed through iconography, techniques, and attitudes toward the creative process itself. In Forms of Exchange, an object such as the jar by contemporary New Mexico artist Susan Folwell, inspired by Native art of the Northwest and decorated with acrylic paints, displays the complexity of both identity and innovation in indigenous art. Works like Folwell's combine with more traditional pieces in this exhibition to give a rich picture of past and present Native artistry.



Pottery making began in the Southwest about 200 C.E., and by 1100 C.E. the ancestors of the Pueblo people -- at the height of their civilization prior to Western contact -- produced fine wares that displayed bold, black-and-white geometric designs. By the fifteenth century, the Hopi village of Sikyatki created an iconography of stylized birds' wings and swirling arabesques. Later Pueblo potters admired and imitated these ancient traditions, especially after the pottery revival of the early twentieth century. This revival helped Pueblo people (so named after the Spanish word for village) bring prestige and much-needed financial support into their communities during a time of disruptive modernization. Potters from the Acoma, Hopi, San Ildefonso, and Santa Clara Pueblos were instrumental in establishing their work as a fine art, both by reinvigorating contact with long-standing pottery-making traditions and through unprecedented innovations.

Most Pueblo pottery is made today as it was in ancient times. Potters gather local clays with a reverential attitude. They mix the clay with temper (sand or ground pottery shards) and form the vessels with hand-molded coils that are scraped smooth, dried, sanded, slipped (covered with a solution of extremely fine clay), polished, painted with vegetable or mineral substances garnered from the desert, and then fired outdoors under a pile of sheep or cow dung.

Typically, each Pueblo community makes pots that display variations in local clays, methods of firing and other techniques, and the persistence of ancestral or borrowed design traditions. For example, the mellow, golden quality of Hopi pots comes from the iron-rich clays of the region, and their iconography often derives from Sikyatki models. The "smudged" black wares of San Ildefonso and Santa Clara result from smothering the fuel during the firing process. The avanyu, or plumed serpent often displayed on the pots from these Pueblos, is a twentieth-century introduction inspired by ancient murals found in the area. In fact, rediscoveries and innovations such as the black-on-black style invented by Maria and Julian Martinez, are part of the rich, ever-evolving traditions that define Pueblo pottery. This art has allowed Native makers to straddle two worlds successfully -- gaining benefits from mainstream society while maintaining their roots in indigenous culture.

Navajo pots are constructed and fired using techniques similar to those of Pueblo makers but are typically undecorated except for a small fillet or braid at the rim. After firing, the potter applies pitch pine resin to the surface. The Navajo, or Diné, entered the Southwest around 1400 C.E., and since the 1980s, innovators such as Alice Cling have taken Navajo pottery in new directions. Cling departs from tradition by incorporating elegant forms with clean lines, and novel elements like notched rims. The sumptuous burnished surfaces of her jars have set a new standard of refinement in this formerly utilitarian form of artifact production.



Before European contact, the Iroquois were semi-nomadic hunters and seasonal agriculturalists who occupied widespread lands in what are now New York, Ontario, and Quebec. The Tuscarora people joined the Iroquois Confederacy in the 1720s, aligning with the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca Nations. Like other Eastern Woodlands Natives, they made beads out of bone, shells, quills, and pottery shards to ornament clothing, carry in medicine bags, use in rituals, and bury with their dead.

From ancient times, Iroquois beads have not only lent beauty to useful objects, but also contributed a spiritual potency, especially the beads made of white, luminous substances, which are associated with light, knowledge, enlightenment, and peace. No wonder that the Woodlands people responded enthusiastically when European explorers first offered lustrous Venetian glass beads in trade. Native people found the visual quality of foreign beads entrancing, and advantageous to the practice of their craft.

As colonialist incursions increasingly undermined traditional ways of life, the Iroquois developed survival strategies. One of the most successful was making articles for the tourist trade, to be sold at locales such as Niagara Falls. For this market, Iroquois bead workers not only created souvenir items, but moccasins, hats, pincushions, and various containers, and other fine useful objects. Similarly, Iroquois basket makers, especially those from the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory (St. Regis Reservation) made woodsplint baskets to sell. White patrons particularly prized Mohawk "fancy" baskets with twisted and curled wefts. Profits from beadwork and basket making allowed them to resist the government programs of forced assimilation that tried to make the Iroquois into settled farmers or wage laborers.

After the late nineteenth century, Iroquois beadwork and basket making went into decline, but several decades ago these forms enjoyed a resurgence. Cayuga bead workers Lorna Hill and Samuel Thomas have studied nineteenth-century pieces and revived techniques and motifs such as birds, flowers, and fruits.

Longstanding Iroquois beliefs hold that beads and berries are visually and metaphorically interchangeable. For example, strawberries, the first fruits of spring, signify spiritual regeneration and renewal. In the exhibition, Thomas's ambitious bandolier bag, a form borrowed from British military uniforms, displays this iconography in a sinuous pattern of glistening beads applied to red velvet. This prize-winning piece is an impressive example of the current Iroquois beadwork revival. Onondaga artist Gail Tremblay draws on similar associations, in her contemporary work "Remembering Wild Strawberries." Made of bright, red 16mm film leader and twisted in the manner of a fancy basket, the piece is an homage to the 1957 Ingmar Bergman film, as well as an evocation of enduring Iroquois traditions.



The Inuit, a distinct group among the Eskimo people, live in the Eastern Canadian Artic, one of the harshest environments on earth. Initially semi-nomadic hunters, they adopted animal trapping after contact with White traders. While a tuberculosis epidemic raged through the population, the fur trade collapsed by World War II. The Inuit then moved from outlying camps into government-sponsored towns. Perceiving this economic and social disruption, several non-Native advisors and government agencies -- such as Canadian artist James Houston and his wife Alma -- encouraged the Inuit to adopt art making as a means of gaining self-sufficiency. The Inuit welcomed this survival strategy, and in the late 1940s, they increased their production of sculpture for sale in the South (i.e., below the Artic Circle). With the help of the Houstons and other advisors, the Inuit quickly developed a burgeoning international market for their art, with themes and subjects that evoked their pre-contact way of life.

Traditional Inuit sculpture consists of small, easily carried amulets carved of stone, ivory, or bone to ensure success in hunting. Although missionaries eventually converted most of the people to Christianity, the Inuit continue to make works that reflect their former beliefs in shamanistic practices, including animal/human transformations. As the art market for sculpture evolved, collectors eagerly began to acquire larger pieces that show Inuit people in traditional clothing performing the typical activities of camp life.

James Houston introduced printmaking to the Inuit residents of Cape Dorset in 1957, and it eventually spread to neighboring communities such as Baker Lake, Puvurnituq, Holman, and Pangnirtung. Each community established printmaking cooperatives and developed its own unique artistic identity. Advisors taught Inuit printmakers techniques borrowed from Japanese traditions and Western art. Because the Inuit already excelled at incising two-dimensional design on their sculptures, graphic art developed rapidly.

The Inuit printmaking process is a communal one: contemporary artists such as Kenojuak Ashevak make drawings at home and then submit them to the co-ops, whose members -- sometimes including non-Inuit advisors -- decide which are to be printed. Co-op printmakers adapt the drawings for a yearly edition of prints, employing a variety of techniques, including stone cut, stencil, woodcut, etching, and lithography.

Initially, the drawings were just a means to an end, a potential model for a print. But in recent decades, Inuit drawings have come to be appreciated and collected as self-sufficient works, especially those by artists such as Janet Kigusiuq and Annie Pootoogook, both of whom are seen in Forms of Exchange. Drawings tend to be more complex and experimental, as in Kigusiuq's lovely Nineteen Fish, in which the artist uses vibrant color pencils to create an intriguing combination of aerial and sidelong views. She accentuates the width of the composition to enliven her subjects, who swim in an environment glowing with brilliant, radiant hues -- Kigusiuq's work represents Inuit art at its most daring.

In contrast, prints are usually more simplified with bold, well-defined shapes and easily recognizable subjects that evoke Inuit traditions and shamanistic beliefs. These subjects especially appeal to collectors. As Pitseolak Ashoona recalled, "Jim Houston told me to draw the old ways, and I've been drawing the old ways and the monsters ever since."

These drawings and prints also preserve a vanished history for members of the Inuit communities, who no longer live in icehouses, travel in dog sleds or survive by hunting. Inuit art thus transmits tradition while providing financial assistance to individuals and communities. Since the 1950s, the enhanced status of Inuit art has gone hand-in-hand with their improved standing in Canada society. In a step toward political autonomy for the Inuit, the Canadian government established the Nunavut territory in 1999.

Inuit camp life and shamanistic beliefs are subjects that especially appeal to collectors. But in recent decades, Kananginak Pootoogook, Napachie Pootoogook, and Suivinai Ashoona have begun to show the melding of traditional, isolated Artic culture with transnational modernity. Works by these artists in the Guarino collection demonstrate not only the aesthetic brilliance but also the social relevance of contemporary Inuit art at the beginning of the twenty-first century.



Edward J. Guarino is an author and educator, whose publications include The Other Mexico: A Guide to Ancient Wonders and Modern Pleasures in Mexico. A life-long resident of the Hudson River Valley, Guarino began collecting Native art in the 1980s, during extensive trips to Latin America to study archaeology and culture. Gradually his focus expanded to include art by Native makers in the U.S. and Canada. His wide-ranging collection includes more than 1000 objects, and as it evolves, he is increasingly drawn to those artists, such as Susan Folwell, Gail Tremblay, and Annie Pootoogook, who are expanding Native art beyond its traditional boundaries.

Karen Lucic is professor of art at Vassar College, and has published extensively on early twentieth-century modern painting, photography and decorative arts, and Native American art. In 2000, she co-curated the exhibition, Humanizing Landscapes: Geography, Culture and the Magoon Collection, at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center.


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