Shared from the 12/29/2019 Star Tribune eEdition



A landmark art exhibit amplified the voices of Native women. These Minnesotans were at its heart.


Clockwise from top left: Andrea Carlson, Delina White, Heid E. Erdrich, Louise Erdrich, Julie Buffalohead and Dyani White Hawk.


From top, 1. Dyani White Hawk’s painting “Untitled (Quiet Strength I)” nods to traditions of abstraction in Native and non-Native Art. 2. Children encountered Julie Buffalo-head’s “The Garden,” her indictment of the decision to erect “Scaffold.” 3. A bag by Delina White. 4. Museum-goers immersed themselves in “Hearts of Our People,” the first major museum show to focus on art by Native women. 5. “Sunshine on a Cannibal” by Andrea Carlson, who interrogates pop culture through massive, multi-horizon works.


Photos provided

By the time you encountered Dyani White Hawk’s white-hot work, just inside the first gallery, you’d seen the custom El Camino parked at the show’s entrance. With its black-on-black pattern, the car issued a kind of warning: In this show, pottery might not take the form of a pot.

Thusly warned, you might look more closely at White Hawk’s painting, the first in her “Quiet Strength” series. Row after row of tiny white brush strokes — quillwork that’s not made of porcupine quills.

The influential magazine Artforum declared it the strongest painting in “Hearts of Our People,” a Minnesota-born, nationally recognized exhibition that has garnered its own list of superlatives: groundbreaking, once-in-a-generation, a massive undertaking, a starting point for new scholarship. Hyperallergic, an online arts magazine, just named it one of the best art shows of the decade.

Six Minnesota artists — White Hawk, Julie Buffalohead, Andrea Carlson, Heid E. Erdrich, Louise Erdrich and Delina White — created some of the show’s defining artworks. They are works that both honor and toy with tradition. Works that challenge and surprise.

These artists, at the height of their powers, are the Star Tribune’s Artists of the Year.

Individually, they had a strong 2019 packed with new works, solo shows and high-profile honors. But together, they helped “Hearts of Our People” rewr ite history. The touring exhibition, launched in June at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, gathered more than 117 artworks from Native American women spanning centuries and geographies and styles and put them in conversation with one another.

“I had complete faith in the women’s voices — the ancient, the current and the ones to come,” said the show’s co-curator, Teri Greeves . “I know the power these women hold; it’s apparent in their work. I knew that once all these pieces came together, that power would vibrate.”

The show came together in conversation, too. It was created not by a single, all-knowing curator but by a group of women.

Greeves, a Kiowa beadwork artist, and Jill Ahlberg Yohe , Mia’s associate curator of Native American art, gathered an all-female, mostly Native advisory panel of 21 artists and experts. They had a say in every step of the show’s creation, from picking artworks to signing off on texts and translations.

To reflect that collective process — and the resulting vibrations — the Star Tribune honors the artists as a group. Employing the consensus of women, a norm in Indigenous communities, to curate a show is “a provocative mandate for museums,” Artforum noted.

Louise Erdrich, the famed author who opened her journals for the exhibition, noted that while the show focused on Native women, the work within it went beyond “any sort of categorizing ... into a realm where art spoke.”

‘Our own voices’

Deep within “Hearts of Our People,” a story plays out on paper:

A sly rabbit tempts a young woman by displaying a spoon with a glossy cherry on its tip. Here, in Julie Buffalohead’s topsy turvy takedown of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, the rabbit balances atop “Scaffold,” a work modeled partly on the gallows used to hang 38 Dakota men in Mankato in 1862. Her eyes on the cherry, the young woman seems unaware of another rabbit at her knee, a noose tied around its neck.

Buffalohead’s drawings, paintings and collages tell tales, and the protagonist of “The Garden” is a coyote. Taking advantage of the misdirection, it coyly glances back, a blue rooster modeled after the Sculpture Garden’s “Hahn/Cock” in its mouth.

Buffalohead made the 6½-foot-long work in 2017, soon after protests over “Scaffold” led to national criticism of Walker Art Center and the sculpture’s dismantling. The Walker acquired her piece the following year. She wanted to capture what it felt like for Native people to be reminded of a painful history, what it felt like to see that history depicted by a non-Native sculptor.

“Our issues get used in a certain way by different artists,” she said in a recent interview. “But our own voices barely get heard. Native people want to be heard in their own voices.”

Then-Walker director Olga Viso acknowledged that before erecting the work, “I should have engaged leaders in the Dakota and broader Native communities . ”

Across town, the Minneapolis Institute of Art had been doing things differently. During a chilly week in November 2014, Native women from across the country trekked to Mia to answer a question: “Why do Native women artists create?”

Ahberg Yohe had dream ed for years of an exhibit of Native women’s art and pitched it soon after joining Mia in 2014. But she and Greeves knew that a show of this size and scope would require a roomful of experts. They began by asking each advisory board member to nominate 10 objects they deemed essential to include.

“So you can imagine — 21 people each bringing forward 10 artworks,” the curator said. “It took time.”

Alberg Yohe, who is non-Native, likes to tell people this process couldn’t have happened anywhere but Mia. That doesn’t mean it was easy.

“People would say, ‘You can’t have 21 people and make a cohesive story.’ ‘You can’t reach consensus.’ Well, we did. Yes, you can . All the stuff that everybody said was too much was at the core of the show’s strength.”

Typically, a curator — probably white, probably male — has an idea for an exhibition of Native art, Greeves said. He brings in a few Native Americans for a day or two, “treats us really well.” The group comments on works already selected. The curator scribbles notes and makes no promises. “Then you never hear from them again,” she said. “I started to think, ‘What the hell is this? What are they using me for?’ ”

Creating “Hearts of Our People” took five years and thousands of e-mails.

From the beginning, it felt different, said Heid E. Erdrich, a Minneapolis-based writer and artist. “This wasn’t jockeying for whose vision was going to eclipse everybody else’s,” she said. “It was more about finding a thread in what we were all weaving together.”

Now on view at the Frist Art Museum in Nashville, “Hearts of Our People” will travel in February to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., and in June to Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Okla. The show acts as a correction, naming and uplifting artworks made by women who have for too long gone unnamed and overlooked. By pairing old and new works, it points out the traditional in the contemporary — and the innovation in the traditional.

In a room lined with beaded bags and dresses, Carlson’s trippy, 15-foot landscape posed tough questions about the way popular culture exploits Native culture. The drawing layers a flurry of images — seascapes and petroglyphs, painted turtles and a headless baby doll — from films and artworks, interrogating the beliefs behind them.

“I don’t utilize a lot of traditional forms. I don’t make a lot of references to my Ojibweness,” said Carlson, 40. Some references are tucked into the work, “but you have to squint to see them. You have to know what you’re looking for.”

The show’s combination of new and ancient works illustrates “how contemporary artists are still sourcing their Native heritage but in a very different way,” said Buffalohead, 47, a member of the Ponca tribe of Oklahoma who was born and raised in Minneapolis.

It’s striking, still, to see a show focused on Native American women, she said. “A lot of times, especially in the contemporary art world, Native women tend to get ignored.

“But that’s something that’s happened in history, too: We pay a lot of attention to men and warriors and chiefs.”

‘A sacred event’

Between the paintings and the sculptures were words. Poems and songs. A journal, cracked open.

A poem by Heid E. Erdrich set to video — a “poemeo,” as her niece dubbed the form — looped in the first gallery. It was inspired by the English/Ojibwe dictionary’s entry for clouds, which is two full pages long.

“I was trying to imagine what it would be like to have a worldview where there were so many words for clouds,” said Erdrich, 56, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe.

Many of the writer’s contributions were less visible: Along with White Hawk, she served on the advisory board, helping to collect the show’s poetry and song. She wrote for the show’s catalog , a hefty, 350-page volume. Then, a week before the show, she and her family members folded more than 400 tobacco ties that visitors could carry as a comfort or leave behind as an offering.

“I wanted our voices in there,” Erdrich said. “Everything we do is with song. Those beautiful dresses don’t exist without music, without a song. And the contemporary version of that is literature.”

In video interviews within the exhibit, artists often speak about — and sometimes sit beside — their mothers and grandmothers. The works, too, acknowledge that ancestry, nodding to traditions and to spirits.

“That’s something I think sets it profoundly apart from the Western, masculine past of so many art institutions,” said Heid’s sister Louise, 65. “So many of these works went beyond this particular time to point to the ancestors whose traditional teachings came through the particular artist.”


ELIZABETH FLORES and BRIAN PETERSON • Star Tribune; provided photo At top, Andrea Carlson, Delina White, Heid E. Erdrich and Julie Buffalohead. Below, Dyani White Hawk and Louise Erdrich.


That doesn’t happen with the men heralded by the art world, she noted. “You don’t find Chuck Close saying, ‘I learned this from my family, including the generations before.’ Saying, ‘I’m a temporary carrier of this talent.’ But that was a huge part of this exhibit.”

Delina White was 6 , living in a two-room, tarpaper shack on Leech Lake, when her grandmother taught her how to bead. Today, at 55, she riffs on woodland floral patterns rooted in her Anishinabe heritage, designing beaded band o-lier bags.

But the curators were interested in an 1800s design White re-created from an old book: a thunderbird for her son, a dancer whose Native name means “lightning going around in a circle.”

“I wanted to make sure he has that connection to his clan and to his relatives,” she said.

The beading is intricate, traditional. White, an enrolled member of the Minnesota Chippewa tribe , also plays with form. This summer, her label I Am Anishinaabe staged a fashion show at the Walker Art Center for a new line of gender-fluid clothing, including ribbon shirts rather than skirts, for people who identify as Two-Spirits, or nonbinary.

White Hawk, 43, beaded her canvas es for years, forming abstract arches that might be moccasins, doors or both. Her newer, bigger works mimic Lakota beadwork and quillwork with tiny, vertical lines that create subtle and strong geometries atop layers of metallic paint.

Studying art, she was drawn to abstract painters such as Marden Hartley only to discover, in their biographies, time spent with or near Native communities . White Hawk argues that Native women shaped modern abstraction, titling a solo exhibit this year “See Her.” That show, at the Lilley Museum in Reno, earned her another Artforum nod as a top pick for 2019.

Like the exhibition at Mia, her works rearrange the hierarchy, “recognizing the legacies of Indigenous women to the history of abstraction and to women at large to the history of abstraction,” White Hawk said. “Because both are overlooked and undervalued.”

Walking through “Hearts of Our People” for the first time, White Hawk was moved — “I just basically tried not to cry all over everybody” — witnessing eight galleries full of hundreds of years of women’s artworks relating to one another.

“You get to physically see that continuum,” she said. “It’s a really humbling experience to recognize that you’re one link in this extremely long chain of greatness. It’s beautiful.”

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168 • @ByJenna

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