Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 15, 2009
Judith Ostrowitz Interventions: Native American Art for Far-flung Territories Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009. 240 pp.; 12 color ills.; 35 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780295988511)

Judith Ostrowitz’s first book, Privileging the Past: Reconstructing History in Northwest Coast Art (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999), took as its subject the complex relationships to tradition maintained by contemporary native artists in the Pacific Northwest as they produce new artworks for a multicultural audience. Ostrowitz’s second book, Interventions: Native American Art for Far-flung Territories, pursues the related question of how contemporary native artists situate their work in global venues (which are by definition cross-cultural) and how contemporary native artists mediate between local tribal demands for the protection of indigenous knowledge and cultural property and the ravenous hunger for all things native in the global cultural marketplace. Citing the formative work on the traffic in indigenous cultural production by Janet Berlo, Ruth Phillips, and J. J. Brody, Ostrowitz notes that efforts to employ material culture and the visual arts as vehicles for intercultural communication and native agency have been a hallmark of indigenous modernity (Janet Catherine Berlo, ed., Plains Indian Drawings, 1865–1935: Pages from a Visual History, New York: Abrams. 1996; Ruth B. Phillips, Trading Identities: The Souvenir in Native North American Art from the Northeast, 1700–1900, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999; J. J. Brody, Pueblo Indian Painting: Tradition and Modernity in New Mexico, 1900–1930, Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1997).

Increasingly in the past half century, Ostrowitz writes, native artists have undertaken evermore broad-ranging forays into transnational contexts. Examples include the recent appearances of native contemporary artists in venues such as the Venice Biennale, but also sites closer to home, geographically speaking, in which natives engage in nation-to-nation relations and in the virtual spaces of global electronic media. Although the aesthetic authority of indigenous artists remains territorialized in specific, bounded spaces (the historic reservation or ancestral homelands, even when experienced only in the memories of the dispossessed) and in the exclusive control of cultural property, increasingly artists have chosen to “leave home”—literally and/or figuratively—to engage in what Ostrowitz terms “interventions” or “worldwide operations.” Overall, Interventions is an admirable effort to reframe in theoretically sophisticated, relational, and global—rather than essentialist—terms the ongoing efforts by native artists to claim and maintain sovereignty. As Ostrowitz argues, the “deterritorialization” of native arts, which traditionally drew authority and power from their emplacement in specific local communities linked by common lineages and legendary histories, raises the issue of whether non-local audiences are properly equipped as “good readers” of indigenous art, as many such expressions enunciate in particular, local terms of crest and clan, to borrow the terminology of cultural property in the Pacific Northwest, in which Ostrowitz is a specialist and from which many of these case studies are drawn.

In chapter 1, Ostrowitz explores the dynamics of crest or “Totem” pole placement in the Pacific Northwest. Traditionally, these were erected as emblems of local “micro identities,” or clan memberships. In the twentieth century, poles and crest imagery were conscripted simultaneously in nonnative efforts to create regional and national identities (often for purposes of tourism), as well as by indigenous activists, who found it advantageous in their interactions with the settler state to present to the nonnative public a unified image of native culture, despite the diversity of indigenous nations in the region. Ostrowitz notes that “proper information about subgroup affiliation” remains visible, but is only legible to those viewers conversant in the specificities of native identities, i.e., other native readers for whom such prerogatives remain relevant. She suggests that at some point in the future such expressions may yet again become associated with specific territories, but only for those who possess adequate skill in reading them.

In recounting the planning process for the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) flagship site on the national mall in Washington, DC, Ostrowitz identifies in chapter 2 a similar negotiation of local and pan-Indian identities. Native protocol might otherwise favor honoring the indigenous host community; yet the Piscataway-Conoy, on whose ancestral lands the museum stands, suffered significant cultural loss, such that local aesthetic traditions could not serve as a basis for the museum’s design. Over the course of years of dialogue, a diverse group of native stakeholders from North and South America consulted with architects in search of “commonalities”—by definition an abstraction, given the impossible task of giving visual form to the myriad regional and historical identities of the indigenous Americas that the museum is charged to represent. As Ostrowitz writes, the emerging genre of contemporary Native American architecture must grapple with such design and political issues. Indeed, how does one create, with modern materials and building forms, an aesthetic that will be read as “Native” by nonnative audiences, and which respects the distinct imperatives of indigenous nations? Perhaps expectedly, consultants and architects arrived at the bland notion of the circle as a symbol for a common indigenous worldview. (Ostrowitz notes how elsewhere in the museum there is a similarly uncritical display showcasing “star” motifs from diverse native visual traditions.) While the building’s organic form does contrast with the insistent regularity of the urban grid, Ostrowitz suggests that the distinctive architecture of the NMAI’s Washington building may also be seen as an effort to create a signature building in league with other global destination museums.

In chapter 3, Ostrowitz returns to the Northwest to demonstrate that local identities are also at issue in a setting in which only or primarily native-to-native relations are at stake: Celebration, a multitribal festival of Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian nation members organized every two years since 1982 in Juneau, Alaska. The event foregrounds the persistence of local, micro identities as they must be negotiated to acquire the rights to perform sacred songs and dances, held by individual clans, in the secular festival. At Celebration, Ostrowitz notes, such traditions are recycled in a broader effort requiring native solidarity for purposes of creating a “public identity,” strategic in dealing with the nonnative mainstream.

In chapter 4, Ostrowitz describes the situation of contemporary native artists who work in the context of international contemporary fine art. In the twentieth century, the formalist lens of modernist art criticism opened to nonnative viewers the experience of native artwork as universal “optical experience,” for which being versed in esoteric indigenous knowledge was not necessary. In recent years, however, native artists, trained in mainstream universities and art schools, have created works that draw from indigenous tradition yet make use of contemporary media, including installation and video. Such hybrid artwork, Ostrowitz argues, “may be threatened by its own intertextuality” (138) in its demand that viewers be conversant in two traditions—a small audience, indeed, and one that some artists have claimed may only comprise other native contemporary artists and a handful of like-minded curators and critics. But surely this is not only true of native contemporary art. Contemporary art, broadly defined, is often attacked as elitist and deliberately obscurantist and, notwithstanding its recent popularity (consider the new generation of destination museums devoted solely to contemporary art), requiring a legion of properly credentialed interlocutors. Moreover, given Ostrowitz’s emphasis throughout the book on local micro identities, on what basis are native artists grounded in far-flung local communities privileged interpreters of work that emerges from other traditions?

Perhaps the problem lies in wanting to claim a special place for native contemporary art in a global art market in which local identities and subjectivities (and particularly voices that speak of displacement, migration, and exile) are very much in demand. The claim that only native art requires that its viewers be fluent in multiple discourses smacks of an essentialism that feels dated in the contemporary art world—a ghetto-mentality that will keep native artists out of the mainstream, even as many artists and their supporters claim to want access to the institutions of the larger art world. Indeed, the desire for global visibility and privileged art-world status may be incompatible with an ethos of cultural protectionism. To be clear, such essentialist claims are not Ostrowitz’s, but those of many (but not all) in the native contemporary art community.

Ostrowitz’s final chapter discusses native art in the age of electronic media, which by its very nature crosses boundaries, defying efforts to police traditional ideas about the stewardship of cultural and intellectual property. Here Ostrowitz describes the efforts by native artists and institutions to manage the degree of access outsiders have to local knowledge. The NMAI’s website, for example, offers little in the way of tribal esoterica, and other native-run sites traffic primarily in recirculated stereotypes and generalities. Indeed, one may wonder why native institutions would choose to use the internet as a medium at all, given its seeming incompatibility with traditional notions of emplacement and grounded knowledge. Ostrowitz, however, believes that precisely because of the accessibility of information and the ease of dissemination via global media, native stakeholders must become active participants. If not, “outsiders . . . those without similar obligations, will outpace them” (177). The task, then, will be undertaken by those native individuals who have become most skilled at working abroad, even when crossing boundaries does not require crossing great distances. As Ostrowitz argues, not only individuals skilled in digital media, but also those who have learned to calibrate their practice in the transnational spaces of a global culture industry, have a role to play in the future of native art.

Bill Anthes
Associate Professor of Art History, Pitzer College