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Women have been a predominant creative force behind Native American art, yet their individual contributions, for centuries, have largely remained unrecognized and anonymous. In the first major thematic exhibition to explore the artistic contributions of Native women, “Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists” celebrates the achievements of these Native women and establishes their rightful place in the art world.
The critically acclaimed exhibition “Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists” was organized by Jill Ahlberg Yohe, associate curator of Native American Art at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and Teri Greeves, an independent curator and member of the Kiowa Nation. At the core of the exhibition is a firm belief in the power of the collaborative process. The Minneapolis Institute of Art formed an all-female Exhibition Advisory Board, which included Native artists, curators and Native art historians, to generate new interpretations and scholarship relating to the art and its makers, offering multiple perspectives that explore traditional and contemporary voices and techniques foundational to the art of Native women.
“We are honored to present this groundbreaking and bold exhibition, designed by and for Native women artists, that showcases their powerful voices and artistic traditions,” said Stephanie Stebich, the Margaret and Terry Stent Director at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “We are also delighted to work with our sister Smithsonian museum, the National Museum of the American Indian, in offering dynamic programming to explore questions of modern Native identity and artistic practice. This exhibition also reflects the important work of the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative focused on amplifying women’s voices, reaching new audiences and empowering future generations.”
The presentation at the Renwick Gallery includes 82 artworks dating from ancient times to the present, made in a variety of media, from textiles and ceramics to sculpture, time-based media and photography. This exhibition is multi-lingual with wall text, audio recordings and labels presented in the artist’s Native American or First Nations languages, as well as English, aiming to present the works in the context of each artist’s own culture and voice. “Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists” is on view at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum from Feb. 21 through May 17. Robyn Kennedy, Renwick Gallery manager, coordinated the presentation in Washington, D.C. Anya Montiel, curator of American and Native American women’s art and craft, joined the museum’s staff Feb. 18.
“Hearts of Our People” highlights the traditional and integral role of Native women artists in serving the cultural, economic, diplomatic and domestic needs of their communities, reaching beyond longstanding conventions of treating these artworks as unattributed representations of an entire culture. The exhibition is organized according to three overarching themes: “Legacy,” “Relationships” and “Power.” These themes are a testament to the underlying purpose with which Native women have historically made art and enable visitors to note variations in the works of art created for similar purposes across time and Native cultures.
“One of the most revelatory aspects of the exhibition for visitors is the realization that most Native artwork is made by women—including many of the baskets, ceramics, weavings and regalia held within tribal communities and museum collections,” Montiel said. “This exhibition centers these artworks into a richly woven presentation that spans geography, time and medium. It is perfectly fitting that an exhibition, which celebrates makers and their creative expressions in forms that are expansive and innovative, is on view at the Renwick Gallery, the nation’s premier showcase of craft.”
“Legacy” examines the way in which Native women artists acknowledge their lineage by creating works that simultaneously embody the experience of previous generations, address the present moment and speak to the future. Fiber work by D.Y. Begay (Navajo) and sculptural works by Cherish Parrish (Ottawa/Pottawatomi) are featured in this section of the exhibition.
“Relationships” explores the concept of connectivity and reciprocity that exists beyond the human world to include animals, plants, places and living and nonliving elements. Christi Belcourt’s (Michif) painting “The Wisdom of the Universe” and the intricate bead work of Nellie Two Bear Gates (Gathering of Clouds Woman, Iháƞktȟuƞwaƞna Dakhóta, Standing Rock Reservation) highlight this link.
“Power” encompasses works created for diplomacy and influence to empower others and for the empowerment of oneself. Photography by Rebecca Belmore (Anishinaabe) and Rosalie Favell (Métis [Cree/English]), adornments by Keri Ataumbi (Kiowa/Comanche) and Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone–Bannock), and shoes embellished by Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone–Bannock) represent the spiritual, social and political power Native women hold.
Each thematic section of the exhibition is accompanied by video commentary featuring artists and members of the Exhibition Advisory Board who speak to the invaluable influence Native women have over their communities’ cultural identity. An audioguide is also available online at AmericanArt.si.edu/exhibitions/native-women-artists. Visitors can hear 18 of the featured artists discuss their work in their own words and provide deeper understanding and insight into the creation of the artworks on view. Artists featured in the audioguide include Kelly Church (Odawa/ Pottawatomi), Dyani White Hawk (Sicangu Lakota, Brulé), Ramona Sakiestewa (Hopi) and Roxanne Swentzekll (Santa Clara Pueblo). Finally, four recorded spoken-word performances and three text renderings of literary works will be presented in the galleries to complement the artworks in the exhibition.
Free Public Programs
Opening weekend events at the Renwick Gallery (Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street N.W.) include a land acknowledgement and welcome by Gabrielle Tayac (Piscataway) Friday, Feb. 21, at
10 a.m., and a gallery talk at noon by Ahlberg Yohe and Greeves, organizing curators of the exhibition. The museum will host a film screening Saturday, Feb. 22, at 3 p.m., at the museum’s main building (Eighth and F streets N.W.) as part of the annual Mother Tongue Film Festival, which celebrates cultural and linguistic diversity by showcasing films and filmmakers from around the world.
The museum is organizing a symposium in collaboration with the National Museum of the American Indian Saturday, March 28, at 2 p.m. The program, which will take place at the National Museum of the American Indian (Fourth Street and Independence Avenue S.W.), features artists Kelly Church (Ottawa/Pottawatomi), Anita Fields (Osage), Carla Hemlock (Kanienkeháka) and Jolene Rickard (Tuscarora) for a conversation about their work and the role of women as artists in Native communities. A panel discussion moderated by Greeves (Kiowa) and Ahlberg Yohe will follow the artists’ talks. Additional information about these programs is available online at AmericanArt.si.edu/events.
The accompanying catalog, Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists, includes essays, personal reflections and poems by 20 members of the Exhibition Advisory Board and other leading scholars and artists. It is available for purchase ($39.95) in the museum store.
The exhibition’s presentation at the Renwick Gallery is the third stop on a multi-city national tour. Following its closure in Washington, D.C., the exhibition will travel to the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where it will be on view June 28–Sept. 20.
“Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists” is organized by the Minneapolis Institute of Art. The exhibition has been made possible in part by a major grant from the Henry Luce Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.
The presentation at the Renwick Gallery is organized in collaboration with the National Museum of the American Indian. Generous support has been provided by the James F. Dicke Family Endowment, Chris G. Harris, the Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason Foundation, Jacqueline B. Mars, the Provost of the Smithsonian, the Share Fund, the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative and the WEM Foundation.
About the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery
The Smithsonian American Art Museum is the home to one of the largest and most inclusive collections of American art in the world. Its artworks reveal America’s rich artistic and cultural history from the colonial period to today. Its Renwick Gallery, a branch museum dedicated to contemporary craft and decorative arts, is located on Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street N.W. The Renwick is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily (closed Dec. 25). The museum’s main building is located at Eighth and F streets N.W., above the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metrorail station. Museum hours are 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free. Follow the museum on Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Facebook. Museum information (recorded): (202) 633-7970. Smithsonian information: (202) 633-1000. Website: americanart.si.edu.
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Note to editors: Selected high-resolution images for publicity only are available through the museum’s Dropbox account. Email AmericanArtPressOffice@si.edu to request the link.