Norman Akers (Osage), Mario Martinez (Yaqui), Larry McNeil (Tlingit), Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (Flathead Salish) and Marie Watt (Seneca) — artists who often utilize traditional American Indians motifs in unexpected ways — were selected by the U.S. State Department and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian to have their work showcased overseas in U.S. embassies worldwide, introducing foreign audiences to the richness and variety of contemporary American Indian art.
The embassy-bound artworks, which were commissioned for the State Department’s Artists Becoming Ambassadors (ART) in Embassies program, were unveiled in Washington at a November 14 reception attended by the artists, first lady Laura Bush and other dignitaries.
Through the ART in Embassies Program, thousands of American artists, galleries and museums have lent paintings, sculptures and other original works of art for exhibition in U.S. ambassadorial residences.
All five artists explained how they approach their work.
Akers’ lithographic print ‘All Things Connected‘
Akers’ lithographic print All Things Connected features an elk encircled by an oval “halo” of bright yellow. The elk is superimposed on a pattern of bisecting lines, suggesting a road map. Other emblems — a spray of acorns, a blazing sun — evoke the artist’s connection to his tribal homeland. The elk and road map are “primary symbols” that represent a sense of place, according to Akers. “Both symbols assist us in defining that place where we belong,” he said.
“For many Native Americans, the experience of modern life creates a kaleidoscope of differing realities … where the boundaries of self and culture can be clearly defined or not so clear; where the past and present, tribal and Western cultures coexist,” said Akers. “My art mediates this experience for me: an experience that many Native people deal with.”
Martinez’s lithograph, ‘The Desert’
Martinez also creates images that explore the essence of place. His lithograph The Desert, The Yaquis and NYC features a smoky swirl that snakes across a series of straight lines, interspersed with elements from the natural world. The straight lines, said Martinez, are a reference to the cityscapes of New York and San Francisco, where he has homes. In Martinez’s vision, the Sonoran Desert, which gave birth to Yaqui cultural and spiritual traditions, becomes inextricably linked to the urban environment where he now lives — a reflection of the contrasting forces that have shaped his life.
McNeil’s lithograph ‘First Light, Winter Solstice’
McNeil’s lithograph First Light, Winter Solstice injects a dose of subversive humor into a familiar, iconic depiction of American Indians. He challenges the romanticized view of the so-called “vanishing race” popularized by photographer Edward Curtis, who chronicled Indian tribal life during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. McNeil provides a vivid turquoise backdrop, with a raven spreading its wings, to Curtis’s nostalgic sepia-toned photograph of Indians on horseback.
The raven is a hint that Curtis’s perspective might be skewed, because in Tinglit tribal mythology, the bird is “a poetic rascal” who “frequently amuses himself” by subliminally pointing out hidden truths, said McNeil. There is another hint, too: McNeil has added a dilapidated old car to the Curtis photograph, which he identifies as the sort of “rez car” frequently seen on tribal reservations.
“A rez car is often old and beat up, sometimes barely running,” he said. “Rez cars have become part of our identity. I am playing with the perception that Indians are only in the past and [I am] bringing them right into the present. If we can take outdated, stereotypical ideas and laugh about them, we can acknowledge that they are indeed a bit absurd and we can move on in a good way.”
Smith’s lithograph, ‘We Are All Knots in the Great Net of Life’
Smith’s art reaffirms “the Native philosophy that all life forms are connected,” she said. Her lithograph We Are All Knots in the Great Net of Life incorporates sketches of an American Indian man with an eagle feather in his hair, as well as wild animals, insects and a stalk of maize — as well as a spider’s web and a human skull, two reminders of life’s fragility. “This lithographic drawing is a symbolic microcosm of my life, but has analogies to the larger system on our planet,” she added.
Watt’s lithograph ‘Blanket Stories: Continuum (Book I/Book III)’
Watt — a conceptual artist known for her sculpture and mixed-media work — said she explores “human stories and rituals implicit in everyday objects.” Wool blankets, which are given away in American Indian communities to commemorate events such as births and marriages, are a recurring motif in her art.
Watt’s lithograph Blanket Stories: Continuum (Book I/Book III) creates a “blanket of words” — an interlacing of text written both horizontally and vertically, mimicking the warp and weft of a woven textile. The lithograph’s language “tapestry” reveals the “personal, social and cultural histories” embedded in ordinary household items, she said.