Review of Berlin Gallery Panel Discussion: Current Issues & Trends in Contemporary American Indian Art with Norman Akers, Steven Yazzie and Patsy Phillips

This discussion, held at the Heard Museum’s Berlin Gallery on 3/7/09 during the Annual Indian Market events, included Norman Akers (Osage),  Steven Yazzie, (Navajo/Laguna) and Patsy Phillips, (Cherokee), Director of the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Billed as an event where the three would “share insights on Current Issues and Trends in Contemporary American Indian Art,” the discussion was moderated by Berlin Gallery Manager Andrea R. Hanley, Navajo.

The event was well attended and audience members included Mr. Berlin, after which the gallery is named, Bob Martin, the President of the Institute of American Indian Arts, and Luci Tapahonso, famed Navajo writer and professor at University of Arizona. Artists in attendance included Kade Twist of the Postcommodity Collective, and America Meredith, among others. The discussion was interactive and lively with many comments from the audience.

Hanley loosely guided the discussion and should be commended for allowing the discussion to flow organically. Because of her moderation, the discussion was very dynamic. She started by introducing contemporary Native American art as an exercise in “cultural self-determination,” which gave me pause for thought—more on this in another blog post! The panel began by discussing the general state of contemporary Native American Art. Akers stated that many Native Artists were addressing global issues in their work; while Yazzie expressed his belief that artists were developing more collaborative pieces and that artist collectives. Both agreed that younger Native artists are exposed to more information and technology, which is influencing new works.

When asked whether or not artists were doing work for the market or for themselves, a spirited discussion followed. Yazzie immediately jumped and said he felt that artists did work for both themselves and for the market. Akers stated, “If you are painting for a market your voice is compromised. You have to find your voice and not compromise it. There is a certain hollowness to creating art for the market; although I am conflicted and reluctant to criticize those creating art for the market because it support so many. It is important that we have artists who do both [art for themselves] and to have artists that challenge the market.” Patsy Phillips followed up by remarking the museums ought to provide more opportunities and further that IAIA could present more cutting edge work than larger museums.

Next, Hanley asked the group if there was any decade they felt was more pivotal than another in contemporary Native American art. Patsy Phillips immediately and definitively replied “Now!” She furthered this statement by saying that there are so many opportunities today, that there are more artists and more younger artists. Although she cautioned that “we [Native Americans] need to create our own critical writing and scholarship.” Akers agreed with her assessment that we are in a the most important era of contemporary Native American art and that younger artists were doing the most inventive and important art right now. Phillips spoke again, “we’re missing our own critical interpretations. People don’t know how to write about Native art. We need our own scholars, but we also need to train others how to write about Native Art, especially in international contexts.” There was much discussion on this point and many in the crowd agreed, including me! I pointed out my background in critical theory and Native American art, but stating that there are few of us and few places to publish. The artists and museum folks in the crowd also got in on this discussion. All agreed that the need for scholarship and critical interpretations of contemporary Native American art is paramount. At some point in the discussion, someone mentioned, “haven’t we been having this discussion for the last 10 years?” This is a true statement. I built my academic career on the notion that there was no critical scholarship or theories for analyzing contemporary Native American art and I started my work in 2001 and it is 2009 and we’re still having the discussion.

This moved the discussion into the final question for the panel, if they saw Native artists moving into the National and International art scene in the next 5-10 years. All panelists said yes. Phillips talked about the Venice Biennale, but again expressed the need for scholarship so there is a critical language to talk about Native art. Phillips is right, if contemporary Native American artists want to move into international art events or any major national event, there must be scholarship about contemporary Native Art.

After relatively few general questions from the audience, the panel discussion closed. The audience had been a part of the panel discussion as it took place, so there was little need for a question period after the discussion. In my assessment, this panel discussion was a good balance to the art market going on outside the walls of the Berlin Gallery. I do hope they continue on this path and schedule more scholarly discussions in the Gallery. Personally, I think it adds to the credibility of the Gallery. The Berlin Gallery, under Hanley’s direction has done more for contemporary Native Art on a National scale than any other gallery I know. The work and artists presented at the Berlin Gallery, are very representative not only of past decades of contemporary Native art, but demonstrate the vitality of this “pivotal” decade of contemporary Native art that we are in the midst of. It was a good event, you should be sorry you missed it.

Published by Traci L. Morris

Dr. Morris, the Director of the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University is a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma. Under her leadership, the AIPI has grown and diversified its service to Indian Country via an MOU formalizing a long-standing partnership with the Native American Finance Officers Association (NAFOA) and forming the Tribal Economic Leadership Program offering training in Tribal Economic Governance and Tribal Financial Management; access to Entrepreneurship training and tribal business support through Inno-Nations; and Economic Development Consulting; and, the formalization of the Institute via by-laws and an advisory board comprised of both internal ASU leadership and external tribal and non-tribal leadership. In her work at both ASU and prior, Morris has worked with Native American tribes; Tribal businesses; Native American non-profits; Native media makers, artists, and galleries; written a college-accredited curriculum in Native American new media; and has advocated for digital inclusion at the Federal Communications Commission and on Capitol Hill. Morris’s research and publications on Native American media and the digital divide is focused on Internet use, digital inclusion, network neutrality, digital and new media curriculums, digital inclusion and development of broadband networks in Indian Country. Her book, Native American Voices: A Reader, continues to be a primary teaching tool in colleges throughout the country. Dr. Morris is Affiliated Faculty at ASU's School for the Future of Innovation in Society, an Affiliate of ASU's Center for Gender Equity in Science and Technology, a Senior Sustainability Scholar at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, President of the Board of the Phoenix Indian Center, Board member of the Arizona American Indian Chamber of Commerce, and on the Advisory Council of the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums. Formerly, Morris served member of the Advisory Board for the Department of Labor's Native American Employment and Training Council and served a two-year appointment (2014-2016 and 2010-2012) on the Federal Communications Commission's Consumer Advisory Committee. As an entrepreneur prior to her ASU appointment, Morris founded Homahota Consulting LLC, a national Native American woman-owned professional services firm working in policy analysis, telecommunications, education, and research assisting tribes in their nation-building efforts and working with Native Nations, tribal businesses and those businesses working with tribes. Morris has an M. A. and Ph.D. from the University of Arizona’s American Indian Studies, in addition to a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Colorado State University.

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