Native American Art is American Art

But it has almost never been shown this way. That’s starting to change.


Wókiksuye (Remembrance), a horse mask made by sisters Kateri and Eileen O’Keefe in 2018, in the “Reimagining Native/American Art” exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

By Tim Gihring

American art has not usually encompassed Native American art. Until recently, these collections at the Minneapolis Institute of Art were under separate departments and displayed in separate galleries. Now, that relationship is changing. In 2021, the museum created an Arts of the Americas department, comprised of Valéria Piccoli, curator of Latin American art; Jill Ahlberg Yohe, curator of Native American art; and Robert Cozzolino, curator of paintings, whose focus is American art. This November, Ahlberg Yohe and Cozzolino reinstalled four galleries on the third floor with a blend of Mia’s American and Native American collections: a beaded horse mask next to Red Wing pottery, flowers made of birch bark next to paintings of rural life. Co-curated with Native scholars and artists, “Reimagining Native/American Art” is a six-month experiment in purposeful proximity.

Here, Ahlberg Yohe and Cozzolino explore the motivation behind the show and what happens when you see this art together.

Why have American art and Native American art historically been separate?

Cozzolino: In a nutshell, it’s the ongoing legacy of colonialism. My undergraduate and graduate school education did not include Native American art. My sense then was that it was a separate field — again, a colonial impact that segregated the field into anthropological studies. I knew about contemporary Native artists in part by encountering their work on my own or from a professor who integrated some into her teaching. But it really wasn’t until I visited Mia for the first time, in 2015, and saw George Morrison’s work in person that everything changed in my consciousness. The Native art galleries were installed with a living, fluid sense of time — not frozen in the past. After I moved here, I started meeting Native artists in the area who became friends. The biggest thing that shifted on my arrival to Minneapolis was the realization that Native American culture — broadly — was present and prominent in this place and I needed to understand my relationship to it as a human being and as a curator/art historian. It was through conversations with the artist Jim Denomie that I was prompted to consider: What’s my responsibility, as someone who studies the art of the United States, to this material? Maybe it isn’t that separate. Learning from the artists and with Jill really sparked this shift.

Ahlberg Yohe: The field has been dabbling in the integration of American and Native American art for a while now, and every museum is going about it in a different way — sometimes without much context or on equal terms. In late 2020, when the Terra Foundation offered a grant to museums to reimagine the display of their permanent collections, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to experiment with this, to see what works and what doesn’t work.

Dyani White Hawk’s screenprint of a dentalium dress and Aliza Nisenbaum’s painting of Latino seniors showing the portraits they made of each other are framed by the clay towers of Santa Clara Pueblo artist Nora Naranjo Morse.

It doesn’t feel forced or heavy-handed, there is a lightness to this experiment.

Cozzolino: I am glad to hear you say that. The early feedback we have been hearing from visitors suggests this as well: I feel good when I’m in these galleries, I feel like the heaviness is gone, it’s joyous.

Ahlberg Yohe: The beauty of this is that we never sought a high and mighty goal. So often, with projects like this, people say things like, “We’re going to transform how we perceive American art!” and it gets bogged down. For us, this was a very fluid and experiential opportunity to learn.

The show is organized around Dakota ways of relating to place, the land, the people. How did you decide on this approach?

Ahlberg Yohe: It was always in the air, but when our advisors came together at the museum our direction became clear — looking at American art with the understanding that we aren’t just on American land, we are on Dakota land. And we have the material in our permanent collection to focus on these themes: Mnisota Makoce — the Dakota name for this place — and the living land, in galleries 301 and 302; Mitakuye Oyasin — the idea of relationality — in gallery 303; and making our future together in the last gallery, 304.

You mentioned the Dakota notion of Mitakuye Oyasin, or relationality. What does that mean to you?

Ahlberg Yohe: Relationality, the idea that we are all relatives, is a principle Dakota understanding. It’s a way of life, of being in relation to everything around you, including the land. And if you come to this project with that in mind, it radically changes how American art is typically understood. Not just in terms of where the artists were making these beautiful things, but the figures within the works themselves, expressing relationality with the people and landscapes around them.

Cozzolino: I tend to think about art history less in terms of movements or styles — the way it’s usually presented — and more in terms of artist communities, networks of people, and relationships. There was often much more of a relationship between different kinds of artists than we’re told, and when you see their art together you understand these exchanges. If we simplify the narrative around, say modern artists, to “isms” and style, we lose something of what being in the art world was really like. So I hope that when people see the broad range of art in these galleries — how they’re calling and responding, almost like parts of a musical composition — that it reflects more of what an artist’s experience of the world really is.

There is a diversity of people in these galleries but also of form: an abstract relief by Red Wing artist Charles Biederman hangs next to a painting by Métis artist Christi Belcourt, filled with flowers and birds.

Cozzolino: One of the aims in that particular gallery is to show the many different ways artists have responded to the land around them. Biederman made all of these geometric metal and enamel structures by looking out at the landscape, thinking about the way the leaves fluttered in the wind, thinking about the quality of light on the banks of the Mississippi River. Those are things you may not immediately see when you look at that piece. But when you know the context in which he was living, you say wait a minute, what seems like this arbitrary red color is the same as that of a red-winged blackbird. Those connections start to happen.

Ahlberg Yohe: Often, in museums, there’s a tendency toward creating a very easy story to tell. But when pieces are put together in different ways, we’re not just viewers of some installation, we’re interacting and thinking for ourselves. We wanted to put things together that would prompt people to think differently.

Christi Belcourt’s 2021 painting It’s a Delicate Balance hangs beside Charles Biederman’s Work №27, Red Wing from the late 1960s.

This experiment feels related to the American Experiment: what happens when people from different backgrounds live side by side.

Cozzolino: We so often talk about that, this idea that the United States is a mix of different people, but we don’t often interact with one another. We don’t often take advantage of the opportunity to go into places outside our comfort zone or cultural background. Part of why it feels like our society is so divided is not necessarily politics but that we aren’t allowing ourselves to really know/see one another.

Ahlberg-Yohe: In these galleries, especially the one devoted to the idea that we’re all related, we’re showing people making things together, making community. We didn’t go out of our way to check boxes, saying we need to have these kinds of representation in the room — and we were limited by what’s in our permanent collection — but we ended up finding material that connected beautifully to this theme.

There is value in the mix. At the same time, communities like having their own spaces at the museum.

Ahlberg Yohe: I talk about this as “Yes and.” Yes, there are pieces in the Native art galleries that can reside in different places, like this installation — and many are alive and connected to living knowledge, and that’s something culturally specific. It’s important to recognize the sovereignty of the Native nations represented in the Native art galleries. Those are nations within nations, and those political, economic, social, cultural, and artistic systems are distinct.

This experiment runs for six months. What happens when it’s over?

Cozzolino: One of these galleries is dedicated to folk art and another to the American West, so the question becomes: are there different ways we can be true to the intentions of those galleries while reflecting where we are in 2024? There are things that people expect to see at Mia — beloved treasures — but we can surround them with context: what do they mean to the Navajo Nation or to an artist working in Brazil? We have been talking as a department about reinstalling them so that they are hemispheric in nature — Jill, Valéria, and I will work together on those. I’d like to see — in general and at the museum — more blending of things, more acknowledgment of the relationality that guided this project.

Ahlberg Yohe: We’re beginning to draw a younger demographic, expanding the communities who have typically been in the museum. And they come here with a clear understanding of what they would like in the future, what they expect museums to offer them, challenging museums to capture their imagination. I think there is a hunger out there for museums to do that by thinking differently, doing things in a way that goes beyond the typical curatorial practice. That will show us the way forward and lend itself to the future of Mia.



Minneapolis Institute of Art
Minneapolis Institute of Art

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