We the People: Notes on Curating Contemporary American Indian art in the 1980s

We the People: Notes on Curating Contemporary American Indian art in the 1980s


During the 1980s, the artist, poet and political activist Jimmie Durham and I co-curated two group exhibitions of contemporary art by American Indian artists: Ni Go Tlunh A Doh Ka (We are always turning around on purpose) at the Amelie A Wallace Gallery, SUNY Old Westbury, Long Island, 1986, and We the People at Artists Space, New York, 1987. The special advisors for both exhibitions were Edgar Heap of Birds and G. Peter Jemison. The entire curatorial project was an attempt to foreground contemporary Native artists’ voices, by opportunistically making use of those pathways into mainstream institutions to which I, by chance, had access as a British art critic then affiliated to Artforum International. Our aim was to present a body of artistic practices that used a range of aesthetic strategies to speak to contemporary Native sociopolitical realities. In other words, to foreground the emergence of artistic practices that had grown out of the Civil Rights and American Indian Movements and which rejected an earlier imposition on Native artists to sentimentalise an idealised past or to cling to a victimry narrative, both of which were unthreatening to white liberal collectors, and were thus inadequate in shifting entrenched negative attitudes towards Native peoples, as Durham’s essays often pointed out.

My own engagement was prompted by complete shock at the condition of reservation life that I had witnessed during a camping trip across Montana in 1980: a fourth world of poverty and social alienation that, in my ignorance, I had not realised existed in the USA. This was later to be confirmed during a second trip through New Mexico and discussions with the late Tewa social anthropologist, Professor Alfonso Ortiz. As a consequence I began to research settler-American Indian colonial history, which had some parallels with the English colonisation and settlement of Ireland with which I was already familiar.

By the mid-1980s, postcolonial theory had begun to filter into general consciousness, largely prompted by the writings Edward W Said and Frantz Fanon, which provided a discursive ground upon which to develop some thoughts on socio-political art practices. As an artist I was primarily concerned with the politics and ethics of art, but traced through an emancipatory politics rather than the identity politics that began to dominate the New York art world during the latter part of the 1980s. In the 1970s, Durham had returned from art school in Switzerland to join the American Indian Movement,1 and was well versed in anticolonial criticism: he had worked with many American Indian, African American and Caribbean writers and activists, was Founding Director of the International Indian Treaty Council and its representative at the United Nations, and had extended his activism through writing.2 In NYC he was also active as a performance artist, but unfortunately I had no direct experience of this aspect of his practice, although the art critic Lucy Lippard most certainly did.

But, in the mid-1980s, from a curatorial perspective, we were largely working with few precedents in the mainstream art system. The NYC ‘art scene’, preoccupied with ‘postmodern’ theory, was transiting from ‘appropriation’ to ‘Neo-Geo’, which seemed like the end-game – or better, death-knell – of American art’s international hegemony in terms of critical authority, although this was not reflected in the commercial market. Nonetheless, there was as yet little critical discourse on the marginalisation of non-Euro-Americans in the mainstream art world of New York, and silence on American Indian artists. The debates had to be invented, which – notably through the efforts of African American artists Fred Wilson and Howardena Pindell, and Cuban-American artist Coco Fusco amongst other outspoken critics in NYC – initially meant challenging racist exclusion and stereotyping.3 Moreover, the death of Ana Mendieta in 1985 and exoneration of her husband Carl Andre’s part in this tragedy, polarised the New York art world along ethnic-mainstream lines, and hardened the resolve of ‘others’ to fight for a critical voice.

With respect to Native America, in NYC two ill-conceived exhibitions illustrated the mainstream attachment to colonial thinking. Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern: Primitivism in 20th Century Art, at the Museum of Modern Art, 1984, failed to address the cultural exchanges of modernism, continuing to present ‘tribal’ arts as unauthored and culturally stagnant. However, the critical debate on the exhibition generated by the critic Thomas McEvilley in Artforum between 1984 and ’85 indicated that the tide was finally turning against Euro-American intellectual hubris. Lost and Found Traditions: Native American Art 1965-85 at the Museum of Natural History (no less!) in 1985 purported to show the ‘survival’ of Native traditions, although these were understood only in terms of ethnographically framed historical material practices. In fact, the most ‘contemporary’ arts exhibited were beaded sneakers and baseball caps. Moreover, the curators had also persuaded a poor soul to re-make ‘ledger book’ drawings, which Native men had made while under military incarceration during the 19th century. Catching a Saturday morning arts programme on NY TV, I heard a schoolteacher explaining to her pupils visiting the exhibition that ‘this was what the Indians made when they lived on our land’, which summed up the general attitude to Native American arts. Modernism, it seemed, was absent from Native traditions. These gross distortions of the realities and dynamics of Native cultures were what Durham wanted to address in our exhibitions.

Ni Go Tlunh A Doh Ka (We are always turning around on purpose)

Cover Catalogue Booklet

Ni Go Tlunh A Doh Ka was made possible because an obligation to stage exhibitions was attached to my teaching job at SUNY Old Westbury. I proposed a contemporary American Indian show because I had seen some critical, conceptually-oriented work in marginal New York galleries (notably, American Indian Community House Gallery on lower Broadway, curated by G. Peter Jemison, and Joe Overstreet’s Kenkeleba House Gallery in the Bowery), and this work undermined the premises of Lost and Found Traditions, notably in their interpretation of what ‘traditions’ mean in American Indian world views.

However, I insisted I could only do the exhibition if it were co-curated with an American Indian scholar. Serendipitously, my boss at SUNY was the artist Luis Camnitzer, a political exile from Uruguay, who knew Jimmie Durham well. Durham agreed to help me if I helped him with some publicity he was doing for the Women of All Red Nations, who were lobbying Congress over Native water rights. This effort failed: as Durham said, Indians were no longer a fashionable cause – so we decided to try to promote socio-political issues through exhibitions in mainstream art institutions.4

The title of the SUNY exhibition was meant to insist that in Native cultures the new and the traditional are always mutually articulated, so what white America promoted as ‘authentic’ Native art based in 19th models (already the result of intercultural trade) was a gross stereotypical and colonial misreading of the traditional dynamism of Native cultures and their openness to the adoption of new ideas and technologies – there was no reason why a video, for instance, should any less reflect indigenous cultural values and narratives than a wampum belt or winter count painting.

Our strategy was to choose just six artists each with several pieces of work. Jimmie selected the artists with advisory input from G. Peter Jemison and Edgar Heap of Birds (who was then associated with Group Material, amongst other artist collectives). The artists selected were: Jimmie (Cherokee) with the satirical installation, On Loan from the Museum of the American Indian; Peter (Seneca/Cattaraugus), exhibiting a selection of his painted brown paper bags; Edgar (Cheyenne/Arapaho), exhibiting versions of his painted die-cut letter text works; Jolene Rickard (Tuscarora), exhibiting a selection of her black and white photomontages; Richard Ray Whitman (Yuchi/ Pawnee), exhibiting a selection of his black and white ‘Street Chief’ series, amongst other photographic works; and Jean LaMarr (Paiute/Pit River), exhibiting a selection of coloured etchings and monoprints. As Jimmie and I were hanging an item from the On Loan installation called Types of Arrows (labelled ‘thin – wavy – short and fat’), an elderly man who had wandered into the gallery came and asked, ‘What did you use wavy arrows for?’

We insisted the college find funding for an illustrated booklet/catalogue as it was important to have a record, which was not common practice at the time for small shows. Each artist was invited to provide translations of Jimmie’s Cherokee Ni Go Tlunh A Doh Ka in their own Native language to preface their page in the booklet, but this was not possible in all cases as so much language had been destroyed by forced assimilation policies. There was no funding for a professional photographer, so I took 35mm slides and sent each artist installation views.

This exhibition travelled to North Hall Gallery, Massachusetts College of Art, Boston, and, courtesy of Edgar’s association, Oklahoma University. Cooper Union agreed to show it, but backed out without any explanation less than one month before opening. We therefore decided to dismantle that show and put together a second one if we could find a central New York venue. After approaching various non-commercial gallerists with little success, Valerie Smith, then curator at Artists Space, and Susan Wyatt, director, agreed to stage the project.5

We the People

The exhibition title is the beginning of the US Constitution, formalised on Sept 17th 1787. This title was chosen, with deliberate irony, because our exhibition coincided with the Bicentenary of the Constitution, and the US had appropriated these words from the Iroquois Federation. Moreover, most American Indian Nations’ names mean ‘the people’ in their languages. This is why the booklet/catalogue cover design carries a detail of a list of names (from the only comprehensive list I could then find), albeit many are Anglicised.

Catalogue Booklet Cover

Durham’s initial idea for the new exhibition was that it should not be confined to American Indians; but then it was decided that the issues of Native America were too specific to be diluted with those of non-indigenous ‘others’, despite shared experiences of racism and marginalisation.6 Durham set the theme of the show as ‘us looking at them looking at us’, so it was not intended as a demonstration of ‘American Indian’ art per se, but as a reflection on how American Indians viewed the way white America represented them – a deconstruction of the colonial ‘ethnographic gaze’. Durham selected the artists from across the US, again with advice from Edgar and Peter, including some artists who had participated in the SUNY Old Westbury show, whilst acknowledging that he did not have a comprehensive view of contemporary Indian artists. One practical fact emerged: not all participants had experience of making work towards a specified conceptual theme – indicative, perhaps, of the extent of their marginalisation from ‘mainstream’ art practices at that time? The artists included in the exhibition were: Pena Bonita (Apache/Oklahoma Seminole), Harry Fonseca (Nisenan/Maidu), Marsha Gómez (Choctawa/Chicana), Tom Huff (Seneca-Cayuga), G. Peter Jemison, Jean LaMarr, Alan Michelson (Mohawk), Joe Nevaquaya (Comanche/Yuchi), Jolene Rickard, Susana Santos (Tygh/Yakima/Filipina), Asiba Tupahache (Matinecoc), Kay Walkingstick (Cherokee) and Richard Ray Whitman. A cassette tape by the Taos Pueblo/Creek flautist John Rainer Jr provided a soundscape. The exhibition included a video programme, organised with the collaboration of Dan Walworth and Emilia Seubert from the Museum of the American Indian.7 And we had juniper burning at the entrance desk.

There had been a few tense moments. Edgar had suggested that the show should focus on Oklahoma Territory to which many diverse peoples had been ethnically cleansed; but Edgar withdrew from the exhibition when we argued that, despite the fact that at a different time this would be very illuminating, it was too geographically distant to challenge New York’s attitudes. It was important to maintain trust between the artists and the gallery at all times. We had to closely monitor all the public briefings that the gallery put out to ensure they properly reflected our intentions. The gallery became anxious when work didn’t arrive when expected, and we had to reassure them that it would turn up on time – which, of course, it did. Valerie, however, turned out to be a tremendous help in actually hanging the work.

Alan Michelson wished to present an installation, so was allocated the small dark space. For the organisation of the remaining two large gallery rooms we solicited advice from Judith Barry and Ken Saylor who had been working on the politics of exhibition design. The front space was organised in a rectangular format to mimic an ethnographic museum display. Vitrines in the centre of the space contained Jimmie’s ‘artefacts’ from his installation On Loan from the Museum of the American Indian, as well as a new work of sculpted figures displayed on the wall like ‘trophies’, referring to the story of Cynthia Parker. However, contrary to the traditional ethnographic documentary content, the viewer was confronted with drawings, photographic and text-based panels by Richard Ray, Joe, Pena and Asiba, which referred, often ironically, to racism, Indian stereotyping and the realities of American Indian life. We accompanied Asiba’s text-based statement with as many examples of commercial packaging that appropriated American Indian figures or imagery as we could find.

The work in the far space projected a more colourful and exuberant tone to suggest living culture and to undermine the ‘white cube’. It was dominated by Jean LaMarr’s mural8. The mural was complemented by acrylic diptychs by Kay; oil paintings by Susana; Peter’s painted paper bags on little shelves, and two large ‘coyote’ paintings by Harry. Tom and Marsha’s sculptures were arranged on pedestals in semi-circles to invoke the Native concept of a circular and relational world. Despite objections, we had the pedestals painted an earth red, the closest we could find to the colour of pipestone, which may have been too obvious, but we needed to get rid of their dead whiteness and the colour worked aesthetically with Jean’s favourite colour, violet, which was heavily featured in the mural.

As with the SUNY exhibition, we insisted that there should be a booklet/catalogue. This contained an introduction by me (‘Guidelines’), an essay by Jimmie, ‘Savage Attacks on White Women, As Usual’, an essay by Paul Chaat Smith, ‘Anadarko Calling’, and an Introduction to the video programme by Emelia Seubert. It was my decision to stamp a skewed version of the Bureau of Indian Affairs ‘bison’ seal on the back of the booklet, but confess this was irony taken a step too far.

Despite the fact that the exhibition was massively attended by the public, I know of only two reviews – by Lucy Lippard in the Art Paper; and by a critic in the English art magazine Art Monthly, who, I suspected, hadn’t actually seen the exhibition as there was no mention of Jean’s very prominent mural. On the other hand, curators travelled from Canada to Artists Space and selected some of the artists for their exhibition Revisions at the Banff Centre, 1988. Revisions was a riposte to The Spirit Sings, 1988, yet another blockbuster exhibition of ethnographically-oriented perspectives on American Indian/First Nations art and culture designed to coincide with the Winter Olympics. However, with breath-taking cynicism, The Spirit Sings was sponsored by Shell Oil, the corporation responsible for land grab, pollution and cultural devastation of the Lubicon Lake Cree in the territory.9

The Next Phase

Having established a precedent for mainstream group exhibitions of American Indian contemporary art, the next phase of our project was to persuade mainstream gallerists to stage individual Native artists’ exhibitions. The two logical artists with whom to begin were Jimmie and Edgar. We also needed to expand into an international dimension, so I turned to the UK and sent documentation on their work to three gallerists whom I thought could be interested: Robin Klassnik at Matts Gallery, London, Declan McGonagle at the Orchard Gallery, Derry, and Mark Francis at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh. Both Robin and Declan agreed unreservedly: Robin was always willing to take risks with unknown artists, and Declan immediately understood the parallels between American Indian and Irish colonial struggles. These individual shows took place during 1988. In Derry, both Edgar and Jimmie responded to the fraught political situation in the city. Edgar’s billboard in the Bogside, with the inscription ‘Peace Unite Respect/Irish Homelands/ No More Kingdoms/No More Kings’, alluded to the shared colonial history of Ireland and Native America; whilst Jimmie’s carved surveillance video camera atop a faux ceremonial pole pointedly addressed the control and containment experienced by colonized peoples. In Matts Gallery Edgar chose to present his subtle paintings referring to land and landscape; whilst Jimmie presented an installation based around his research into the historical visits by Native American individuals to England.

Amongst the comments in Mark Francis’s negative response to the exhibition proposal was that Jimmie was ‘not a mature artist’, thus completely missing the point of his work. Worse, during the following months, Francis was appointed assistant curator to Jean-Hubert Martin for Magiciens de la Terre, and some time later approached me about possible ‘Native American artists’ as, belatedly, they hadn’t so far considered including them. I asked several artists to send him documentation (and this was financially hard for them to do), but in the end he went on his own Grand Tour of the US and chose artists that fitted Eurocentric ethnographic ideas of Native ‘magicians’, which completely misunderstood Native worldviews.10 However, in retrospect, it is probably fortuitous that my recommendations were ignored; given the generalised ‘folkloric’ tone by which non-Euro-American artists were framed in Magiciens, it is likely that Jimmie’s work, for one, would have been grossly misinterpreted.11


Our exhibitions were staged at a moment just prior to the recognition of ‘multiculturalism’ and the dissemination of postcolonial debates in the mainstream art world. But an overriding question emerged: what were the values and limitations of these debates to the indigenous context? To clarify this is to enjoin what Loretta Todd (Métis/Cree), more than fifteen years ago, called a ‘scholarship of our own’ whose pathways were of ‘our own choosing’. This is a vital issue but extremely difficult for a non-Indian person to decipher. How might indigenous subjectivity translate into political and artistic agency in the global sphere? In the indigenous context one cannot speak of the post-colonial in any periodised sense of the term. American Indian Nations occupy an experiential and critical terrain that continues to be engaged in anti-colonial struggles with a permanent settler society—notably, for juridical recognition of cultural, territorial, political and economic sovereignty12 – whilst simultaneously grappling with more generalized postcolonial issues of history and representation.

Thus, if ‘postcolonial’ names a period of critical reflection on the legacy of colonisation, how far has this served the American Indian context? Among the most widely circulated postcolonial commentaries during the 1990s few addressed indigenous contexts, so how were they to be negotiated from indigenous perspectives? Notwithstanding local circumstances, anti-colonial critique and postcolonial theory address rather different concerns. The former sees a world of antagonisms and hierarchical distinctions, and tends to be polarized around a rhetoric of victim and victimizer, exploiter and exploited, inevitably leaning toward cultural essentialism (nationalist or nativist). Aside from the problems of binarism and victimry, which are recognised as unproductive, this rhetoric also elides complex identificatory processes like the psychic ambivalence of desire and dread between self and other so compelling in the postcolonial writings of Homi Bhabha. Postcolonial theory, was evolved largely by diasporic intellectuals in the wake of the collapse of militant liberation movements, and sidestepped confrontational divisions in favour of discursive practices that spoke of pluralized identities, border-crossings and cultural hybridity. It was nonetheless criticized for privileging cultural and textual analysis over social, political, and historical realities. It is precisely, then, the pragmatic issue of realities that distanced postcolonial theory from American Indian contexts.

My instinct with respect to all Native cultures of the Americas is to say that cultural ‘hybridity’ is a false face. The peoples may not have originally had horses and carts but in North America they walked, talked and traded across the continent they called ‘Turtle Island’, which is exactly as it appears on the map; and throughout the entire Americas the peoples had a rather more sophisticated concept of a relational moral universe, of social cohesion and sustainable agriculture, than Europe. From the moment of first contact with Europeans, American Indians proved adept at adapting new objects and technologies to their own practical lives and belief systems. Despite immeasurable losses, there remains a history and practice of resilience and adaptation in the face of one of the cruellest genocides and memoricides in human history. From this debacle, in recent decades there has emerged a body of Native scholars and artists who confront the premises of Western philosophy and orthodoxy towards what Loretta Todd advocated as a ‘discourse of own’. Whether or not the Anglo-Western world is prepared to listen is another matter altogether. In any case, the nature of the debate that gave rise to We the People has moved on and perhaps different questions are now on the agenda capable of enhancing indigenous agency.

© Jean Fisher 2013

1 A member of the Cherokee Wolf Clan, during the 1970s, Durham had been a member of AIM’s Central Council. At the time I approached him with the curating project he was engaged with what I believe was his last supporting advocacy: an appeal to Congress by the Women of All Red Nations for Native water rights – the Corps of Engineers had been diverting water from the Missouri Basin to major cities, leaving the rural Native people with little or no potable water. The dismal fact is that this appeal failed.

2 During the 1970s Durham published several essays in Treaty Council News and, during the 1980s, in Art and Artists, the publication of the Foundation for the Community of Artists of which he was for a time Director. Third Text/Kala Press was later to publish most of Durham’s early writings in the volume A Certain Lack of Coherence, 1993.

3 In 1979 Artists Space had come under intense criticism for not censoring ‘Nigger Drawings’, an exhibition of abstract charcoal drawings by Donald, whose title overstepped the line of freedom of artistic expression. This focused attention on the racism of the NYC art world. It was not until I returned to the UK in the late 1980s that I encountered parallel postcolonial critiques by British black and Asian artists, who had also turned to curating their own exhibitions.

4 We subsequently got a modest foothold in Artforum and the Whitney Museum’s Students’ Independent Study Program. However, when I approached the then editor of Artforum to publish an article by Jimmie, she said she would accept a text if it was jointly written (she was unaware that he was already a writer). So, we just spliced together two separate texts, published as Jimmie Durham and Jean Fisher, ‘the ground has been covered’, Artforum International, Summer, 1988, pp 98-105.

5 Another little anecdote: I had proposed to the curators of the Artists Space exhibition, The Fairy Tale: Politics, Desire and Everyday Life, 1986, that an obvious candidate for inclusion was Maidu artist Harry Fonseca’s painting Once Upon a Time #1, 1985, which satirically depicted Coyote Trickster in bed as Grandmother from the Red Riding Hood tale. Artists Space declined to include the painting in the show, but allowed an illustration of it to accompany my essay ‘Coyote Comes, Laughing’ – in fact, it was the only illustration in their booklet.

6 This ‘multicultural’ concept later formed the basis of the Whitney Biennial of 1993, which, however, received negative reviews from a largely hostile mainstream critical press.

7 The video programme consisted of: Arlene Bowman (Navaho), Navaho Talking Picture, 1986; Victor Masayesva Jr. (Hopi), Hopiit, 1981; Chris Spotted Eagle (Houma?) Do Indians Shave?, 1972; Asiba Tupahache, A Tragedy and a Trial, 1986; Ute Indian Tribe Audio-Visual, The Ute Bear Dance Story, 1986; and Rick Weise (dir.) and Gerald Vizenor (Anishinaabe – scriptwriter), Harold of Orange, 1983.

8 Jean had wanted to gather local schoolchildren to paint it, as was her custom back home, but this wasn’t possible to organise, so we solicited volunteers from the Whitney Students’ Independent Study Program.

9 For a summary of this situation, see Fisher, ‘The Health of the People is the Highest Law’, Revisions, 1988; republished in Third Text, No 2, Winter 87/88, and Vampire in the Text, 2003.

10 History shows that Francis made the wrong call, as Jimmie Durham is now one of the most globally respected artists, and Edgar has enormous stature internationally as an artist and educator.

11 A further anecdote: Back in London, during the early 1990s, I was invited to attend a meeting at the Hayward Gallery, South Bank, to discuss their proposal of staging an exhibition of Native American art. Also invited was an anthropologist or ethnographer. The general tone can be gauged by the suggestion that they try to get hold of a ‘totem pole’. As a result of the objections to this kind of thinking, the proposal was put on permanent hold. An almost identical scenario took place in 2013 at the Royal Academy. So the question is, why can’t gallerists countenance an exhibition of Native modernist-postmodernist contemporary art that speaks for itself without the intervention of anthropology and ethnography?

12 Whilst most ‘tribes’ are sovereign Nations, which treated legitimately with the US federal government, a Supreme Court ruling in the case Cherokee Nation v. Georgia maintained that the ‘tribes’ were “domestic dependant nations” whose relation to the United States was like “that of a ward to his guardian.” The case forms part of the ‘Marshall Trilogy’ on American Indian sovereignty, 1823-1832). In effect, it gives the federal government final arbitration in Native affairs, and it has periodically sought to dissolve the sovereign status of various Nations.