Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 20, 2020
Jill Ahlberg Yohe and Teri Greeves, eds. Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists Exh. cat. Minneapolis and Seattle: Minneapolis Institute of Art in association with University of Washington Press, 2019. 344 pp.; 400 color ills. Paper $39.95 (9780295745794)
Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, June 2–August 18, 2019; Frist Art Museum, Nashville, September 27, 2019–January 12, 2020; Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, February 21–May 17, 2020; Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, October 7, 2020–January 3, 2021
Rebecca Belmore (Anishinaabe), Fringe, 2007, transparency in light box (1 of an edition of 3), installation view, Hearts of Our People, Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2019. Minneapolis Institute of Art, Gift of funds from Donna and Cargill MacMillan Jr., 2010.56 (artwork © Rebecca Belmore; photograph provided by Minneapolis Institute of Art)

Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists celebrates the works of North American Indigenous women throughout history and into the present. In selecting the 117 objects included in the exhibition, the curators, Jill Ahlberg Yohe and Teri Greeves (Kiowa), were determined to provide a comprehensive display that represented all geographical areas and a wide variety of media, from beadwork and basketry to video and performance art. They were guided by a team of native and nonnative artists, scholars, and curators, not only in selecting the works for the exhibition but also in ensuring that the narrative they presented challenged some of the limited assumptions about Indigenous artistic production that still plague exhibitions and scholarship on native women’s art. Even more, their goal was to construct new narratives and frameworks for understanding these works grounded in Indigenous perspectives and ideologies. As the curators summarize, Hearts of Our People “highlights the artistic vision, ingenuity, and experimentation of Native women artists who have embraced new media to innovate in every period, who have sustained or revived customary practices, and who are frequently overlooked and undervalued in art historical and anthropological discourses” (20).

The exhibition is arranged into three major themes: legacy, relationships, and power. “Legacy” focuses on the transmission of knowledge, whether from one generation to the next or one family member to the other, revealed through objects. These legacies often reflect the resilience and determination of the women who made the works and allow us to imagine a flourishing of native women’s art in the future. “Relationships” emphasizes interconnectedness not only between people but also between all things. “Power” recognizes that “Native women have long held positions of leadership within and for their communities” (25). While works within each section are positioned to highlight the themes of the show, as the curators themselves acknowledge, many of the works could easily fit into any one of the three themes. Visitors will revel in the superb collection of works on display: Pueblo pottery, beadwork, textile weavings and basketry, clothing such as a jingle dress and elk-tooth dresses. Photography and paintings are also on view, as is video art, mixed-media art, installation art, and performance art. In a press release video for the exhibition, artist, curator, and art historian Jolene Rickard (Tuscarora) describes Hearts of Our People as having a “wonderful wildness to its curatorial process.” This is clearly and compellingly felt in the diverse mix of objects on display. The exhibition powerfully reveals that native women have found ways to express their creativity, in the past and into the present, in countless aspects of their lives, and that expression of creativity reaps great benefits to each woman’s community and beyond.

With traveling so severely restricted for many due to COVID-19, changes have been made to the exhibition schedule. My own plan to visit the exhibition at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum was thwarted by the gallery closing prematurely, and travel restrictions may limit my ability to get to the Philbrook. With so many people in this same situation, the online presence of the exhibition is all the more important, and fortunately there are videos, an online gallery, and photographs of the exhibition’s previous installations that provide viewers with a substantive virtual experience. Produced by the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the video press release introduces viewers to some of the women whose works are included in the exhibition. The Renwick website is most comprehensive, with a video for each of the three themes of the exhibition, descriptions of twenty-one works on display that are written in both English and the artist’s native language, and an audio tour that includes the voices of several of the artists in the exhibition.

The exhibition catalog is a rich resource, particularly for those new to the works of North American Indigenous women artists. Those familiar with their scholarship will not be surprised to see the names of art historians Janet C. Berlo and Ruth B. Phillips in the table of contents. Their essay titled “‘Encircles Everything’: A Transformative History of Native Women’s Arts” provides a summary of now well-known problematic approaches to native art by art historians and by Western scholars in general, as well as some suggestions for correctives. The catalog is encyclopedic, including short histories of Pueblo pottery, quillwork, and painting and interviews with artists on a variety of topics related to native women’s art. Its strength lies in the newer voices introduced to the reader and the voices of the women artists themselves, several of whom also have experience as curators. Some essays are personal reflections on objects, while others provide theoretical and historical analyses. With its sixty-eight contributions, ranging from short reflections on individual works to more in-depth explorations, it is impossible to fully review the catalog essays, so I am only able to mention a few. In her essay “Women Were Busy Abstracting the World,” Greeves claims abstraction as a “feminine language” among native women (101). In “Animate Matters: Thoughts on Native American Art Theory, Creation, and Practice,” Ahlberg Yohe encourages us to reorient our “perception of objects as static and instead consider them as active participants in ‘social worlds’” (170). If there is any limitation to the catalog, it is that it did not position the exhibition more strongly in relation to some of the innovative exhibitions of native art that have been organized in recent years. However, the book is rich with exquisite reproductions of the works in the exhibition that are sure to be an important teaching resource.

In their introductory essay, Greeves and Ahlberg Yohe articulate the inspiration for the exhibition. They write, “While we both recognize that the majority of Native art was and is made by women, we came to the realization that there had never been a major exhibition or catalogue dedicated to Native women artists” (15). This exhibition provides an important corrective. For those able to travel to Tulsa, Oklahoma, there is still time to see the exhibition at the Philbrook Museum of Art, the final venue for Hearts of Our People, which has extended its dates to the beginning of 2021.

Cynthia Fowler
Professor of Art History, Emmanuel College, Boston