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New 'Vantage Point' show at American Indian museum shows off symbolic power

Four particular works strike art critic Blake Gopnik as he visits the new exhibit "Vantage Point: The Contemporary Native Art Collection" at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.

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By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 10, 2010

Those with power make money. Those without, make art.

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I'm not sure my aphorism always holds true, but it often comes to mind when I'm looking at shows of art by the powerless and disadvantaged. Once a group has been deprived of its lands or its votes or its living -- or even its lives -- exhibiting its art can feel like conscience-salving condescension.

It's as though we were saying, "Oh, but things aren't so bad after all. Look, we've left you your artmaking soul. What could be more precious that that?"

"Vantage Point: The Contemporary Native Art Collection," a new exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, runs some of those risks, even though it was chosen from the recent works acquired by the native-run institution. It includes 31 pieces, and the lesser among them feel powerless, the fiddlings of people left with no more effective way to make a mark. Unlike mediocre works made by the culture that's on top, native works that lack artistic power can seem to represent the larger disempowerment of their makers. This leaves their artmaking souls -- all that we've left them -- suddenly looking less precious.

Luckily, the opposite is also true. Even if it can't change the world, powerful art stands as a symbol for the possibility of other kinds of power. And that's doubly true for art by native peoples, who start with the deck so stacked against them.

Among the works in "Vantage Point," the following struck me as particularly empowered and empowering.

-- "Tire," made by Joe Feddersen, a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes, in 2003.

"Tire" is a large, cylindrical vessel or vase of blown glass, about the size and shape of a bathroom wastepaper basket. Its crisp, clear surface has been sandblasted with the fine patterns of traditional basketwork, making it look almost as though Feddersen had cast an actual basket in frosted glass. In a ring around the middle of the vase, Feddersen lays a bolder, much bigger geometric pattern, angular and black. It starts off looking like it too might be traditional but then, as you take note of Feddersen's title, you realize the pattern is in fact a track from some Mack truck or ATV. (A fine, cream-colored bead around the rim of the vessel looks like it could be a remnant of whitewall.)

The work invites certain easy readings -- of modernity riding roughshod over the past or of the mechanized crushing the natural. But I think the piece invites more subtle interpretations, too. The tire track is too appealing, as a pattern, to be cast as the villain: It is closer to a booming but necessary present, laid over, but not canceling out, a past that's more genteel -- or at least is made to seem that way by time. Indians, like all of us, live in both present and past, and can master both, as Feddersen has done. His work's ambivalence is the source of its power.

-- "Indian Act," a work finished in 2002 by Nadia Myre, an Anishinaabe Canadian from the Kitigan Zibi First Nation of Quebec.

For "Indian Act," Myre took the printed pages of the law by the same name, which lays down the legal framework within which Canada's native peoples live. She and 200 friends and volunteers then covered those 56 pages with tiny glass beads in red and white -- the colors of the Canadian flag, but also of much native craft.

Some pages of the act are entirely hidden under the beading; others might only lose half or a quarter of their original text, with the rest left visible for the reading. The beadwork more or less respects the format of the original document: the red is the "page," while the white beads crawl across it in broken lines that evoke the broken lines of text in printed matter.


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