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  • Moving Beyond the Expected:Representation and Presence in a Contemporary Native Arts Museum
  • John Paul Rangel (bio)

This essay is a critical ethnography of Native art and representation in a contemporary museum, the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I explore how one museum promotes and encourages the recognition of Indigenous ways of knowing, Indigenous models of representation, Indigenous aesthetics, and the delivery of knowledge pertaining to Native arts and culture. Intrinsic to this discussion is naming dominant cultural perceptions that are outdated, and intervening with decolonizing methodologies and Tribal Critical Race Theory (TribalCrit). Additionally, I elaborate on the ongoing discussion of Indigenous aesthetics by briefly surveying the 2009 traveling MoCNA exhibition curated by Ryan Rice titled Scout's Honour, featuring the work of Frank Shebageget and Michael Belmore, both Ojibwe from Thunderbay, Ontario.1

Native art, or what some still refer to as "Indian art," is commonly associated with silver and turquoise, dream catchers, objects adorned with beads and feathers, or pottery and textiles, particularly Navajo rugs and other "crafts." In commercialized settings, these objects are commoditized, fetishized, and romanticized abstractions of Native arts and culture, serving the consumers who buy them. When Native art and culture is displayed and represented in public institutions, such as museums, it is often packaged, presented, and consumed through the lens of the dominant culture, creating an imagined past where Native peoples are static, immutable parts of colonial history and conquest.2 [End Page 31] Museums that display Native art using anthropological, ethnographic, and Western art historical models as interpretative lenses work to sublimate Native peoples and cultures into an imagined or romanticized past, creating an absence of authentic Native representations in the present. The museum, as a public institution and a producer and transmitter of culture and knowledge, is often one such site of sublimation and tokenization.

The Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, whose mission is the advancement of "discourse, knowledge and understanding of Native art,"3 takes a different approach via their collection, exhibition, and interpretation of Native arts. The museum is a center within the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), a federally chartered tribal college. As a Native-run "contemporary" art museum, MoCNA's ideologies and perspectives used to structure the exhibits, programming, and outreach efforts promote and encourage the recognition of Indigenous ways of knowing, Indigenous models of representation, and the delivery of knowledge pertaining to Native arts and culture. Indigenous ways of knowing include culturally distinct cosmologies, belief systems, values, traditions, and ideologies that are integrally tied to language, community, and place. Indigenous models of representation and the delivery of knowledge pertaining to Native arts and culture prioritize Indigenous ways of knowing over Western forms of representation.

There is very little written about contemporary Native art, Native art theory, or Native curatorial practice, and most of what is written is from a Western perspective. The number of books available by Native scholars about Native art and culture is disproportionally low compared to those written by non-Natives. This lack of scholarship is especially troubling given the prevalent stereotypical imagery and ideologies projected through popular culture, public institutions, and books that leave out or obscure the Native voice. These dominant cultural representations reify romanticized notions and naturalize racism. At worst, these images promote cultural and physical genocide.

Given this lack of resources, how are Indigenous perspectives conveyed in a contemporary Native arts museum? Native arts are often categorized into two main areas: "contemporary" and "traditional." This categorization is problematic, as it fictionalizes a fissure in cultural production instead of allowing for a more nuanced representation of a living, continual, thriving culture. Evaluating Native art through rubrics such as "contemporary" versus "traditional" forms static misnomers that force a distinction between an ahistorical "pre-contact" nostalgia and "post-reservation" cultural production. The dichotomous taxonomy of "traditional" and "contemporary" utilized in interpreting Native art results in a reductive privileging of the non-Native voice and authority on what constitutes the field. The Native museum is therefore tasked with a responsibility to cast off these reductive and constrictive binary [End Page 32] models and reconceptualize what Native art is and means within a Native context. The Museum...


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pp. 31-46
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