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Rounding Off The Cutting Edge

Museum Gives a Taste of Contemporary Works

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 19, 2004; Page R08

Succotash and pemmican and other treasures of Native American gastronomy don't feature big on fine menus around the world.

Traditional Indian art forms such as basketry and quill work are appreciated, but mostly in the ghetto of native craft and its collectors.

Vancouver artist Susan Point's carved and painted disk of red cedar, commissioned for the opening, doesn't push beyond tradition. (Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

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Native music hasn't won many Grammys.

Then there's the world of cutting-edge contemporary art. It may be the only place where works by North America's native peoples really rank.

At the supremely prestigious Documenta exhibition in Germany in 2002, a whole suite of monitors was given over to Zacharias Kunuk and his Igloolik Isuma Productions video collective, for an installation about contemporary native life around the Arctic Circle.

Brian Jungen is a talented young Vancouver artist whose mother is from the Dunne-za Nation -- a group once known as the Beaver Indians -- in the interior of British Columbia. He is featured in the international biennial in Gwangju, South Korea, which launched earlier this month. The Washington-based curators who helped organize the show were wowed when they came across his works. He's made standard shipping pallets exquisitely carved from cedar, the wood of choice for the palletfuls of West Coast native art that ship to the outside world; whale "skeletons" assembled from cut-up plastic garden chairs -- complex things that prod at the flat-footed ideas of nativeness that most of us, including many Indians, have bought into. Jungen is about as hot a commodity as the art world has to offer.

Rebecca Belmore, an Anishinabe artist now based in Vancouver, will represent Canada at the Venice Biennale this coming summer. Her plan for the project has yet to be released, but it's bound to challenge everything her viewers think about the nature and meaning of Native American culture.

Similarly radicalized native artists such as James Luna and Jimmie Durham -- who was featured in the last Venice Biennale -- would be on any list of figures who have mattered in the recent history of art.

Visit the Smithsonian's new National Museum of the American Indian, and you can get a taste of some of this plenty in its permanent collection. Three of the eight major works installed to celebrate the museum's opening are commissions from living artists, and there are a few other contemporary pieces scattered here and there. (The special-exhibition area has been devoted to a two-man loan show of George Morrison and Allan Houser, native Old Masters who hit their stride after World War II and are now deceased.) There isn't much current art on show, and not all of it is native art at its most daring. But it should whet some appetites.

NMAI isn't an art museum, so most of its contemporary works have come into the collection as donations, or by transfer from other government bodies, rather than as strategic purchases. This means the holdings can be pretty hit-or-miss.

The museum's most exciting works of contemporary art are tucked into a small display inside the "Our Lives" exhibition on the museum's third floor, which explores how indigenous Americans live today. The display uses a few small works of art to illustrate how the "vocabulary" of native culture has changed to deal with contemporary realities.

One vitrine contains a delicate vessel by Mi'kmaq artist Gail Tremblay, immaculately crafted in the ancestral style of native basketwork from the Northeast.

Tremblay has clearly taken pleasure in surveying the world around the contemporary native artist -- a world that includes film schools and cast-off footage -- for attractive crafts materials, just as her ancestors would have scoured their forest environment for basketry supplies. But there's real contemporary content here as well: The illegibility of the random, discarded film stock has something poignant about it. It seems to talk about native artists and cultures at sea in a world of passing images that rarely speak to their reality. It talks about a kind of desperate cultural tinkering, in which an Indian artist tries to make white culture useful but finds in it only the raw material for nostalgic craft.

There's a kind of willed obtuseness in this basket, a refusal to acknowledge that the film stock is anything more than a pile of ribbons, or that an Indian might use it for something other than traditional basketwork. "You want me to be the kind of naive Indian who thinks glass beads are money, and that film stock is just another kind of bark?" the artist seems to say. "Then that's what I'll be. And I'll still make an object with both beauty and meaning in it."

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