The Native American Artist Harnessing ‘Old Indian Tricks’?
A group of Native American painters, most of them from Eastern and Northern Plains tribes, converged at the first annual Black Bird Gallery exhibition, which opens its doors to the public this week.
The show, which showcases 30 of the leading Native American painters, is the result of collaboration between gallery owner and director, Thomas C. Norkuske, an American Indian and the chief executive of St. John Lutheran College of New Mexico in Albuquerque, and gallery owner and director, Jim Johnson.
Many of the paintings in the show date from the 1950s or later. What is perhaps less surprising is that none of them resemble the iconic images from that era that are in museums and galleries all over America and are usually associated with the work of European painters.
In fact, as the gallery’s curator, Jim Johnson told me in January, this “truly has been a Native American art project.”
Johnson, who grew up in Albuquerque, joined the Black Bird Gallery four years ago, and has led the gallery’s development, curation and exhibition practices ever since. He is also the principal curator for the Native American Art Research Center (NARC), part of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, which opened its doors in 2003.
Like the Black Bird Gallery with its diverse audience, the NARC is a cultural organization that has been working to bring the experiences of Indian peoples to the attention of the rest of society. While the NARC’s exhibits highlight the work of the Native peoples of the Americas, Johnson said, its activities have more to do with the collection of artifacts that have been gathered by the NARC’s staff members, many of whom are enrolled members of Indian tribes that reside in the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
The show’s artworks represent the works of an eclectic range of Native American artists – some of whom have been trained in traditional techniques of painting, others are artists of other nations, but all of them are of Native American heritage.
The idea for the show emerged in a conversation between Johnson and Norkuske. Over the course of a few months, Norkuske had been putting together a diverse group of artists who would form the nucleus of