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Reclaiming their stories: Noted native artists celebrate gallery anniversary with self-portrait show

"Self-Portrait: The Earth is My Home"

Carolyn Lee Anderson
“Self-Portrait: The Earth is My Home”

The cultural staying power of Edward Curtis’ photographs, taken at the dawn of the 20th century – romantic, sepia-toned portraits of America’s rapidly disappearing native peoples – is remarkable. Curtis’s representations of native people — like those of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, or the famous 1971 “Keep America Beautiful” campaign — informed the larger, public imaginings about native identity for generations.

Such images are largely fantasies, spun in the minds of outsiders looking in; they have left generations of viewers with a much diminished impression of complex, varied communities. This ilk of portraiture amounts to a fancier’s idealized take on people and cultures which, at best, reflects an incomplete understanding of its subjects and, at worst, entirely misrepresents them.

Ancient Traders Gallery’s sprawling new exhibition, “Hokah!” offers an effective, nuanced rejoinder to such work. The show — conceived by noted Minnesota artists Jim Denomie and Carl Gawboy, and curated by Carolyn Lee Anderson — consists entirely of self-portraits, made in a variety of media, by 27 contemporary artists, all Native Americans, most of whom live and work in and around Minnesota.

Curator Anderson says, “Self-portraiture gives people an opportunity to express how they feel about themselves, without the romanticization or stereotyping that has been such a pervasive part of outsiders’ portraits of Native Americans.”

“In fact, many of the portraits in ‘Hokah!’ turn the usual expectations around,” she continues. “They defy the usual stereotypes, the sorts of things people have grown to expect when they see ‘Native American art.’ “

"Sustenance"

Jim Denomie
“Sustenance”

“Hokah!” is also an alumni celebration of sorts for Ancient Traders Gallery, a “cultural collaboration” of the Great Neighborhoods! Development Corp. Anderson describes the exhibition as “an anniversary show — we invited every artist who’s shown in the gallery over its 10-year history to submit work.”

The exhibition includes some 40 pieces by an impressive roster of artists, among them Karen Beaver, David Bradley, Julie Buffalohead, Andrea Carlson, Gordon Coons, Jim Denomie, Carl Gawboy, Emily Johnson, Behon LaPrairie, Kevin Pourier, Mona Smith, Jonathan Thunder, Cat Whipple, Missy Whiteman and Bobby Wilson.

While the artwork is varied in style and content, as you’d expect from such an array of artists, there are some consistent themes that emerge. Much of it evokes a sense of geographic displacement, of identities and histories lost and found and all mixed up; in other pieces, there are strong currents of dark irony, caustic re-examinations of political history and the socio-economic ills facing contemporary native communities in the region.

Anderson says, “Like many artists, I feel some ambivalence about the designation ‘native artist.’ On one hand, [Ancient Traders] is a contemporary Native American art gallery — we’re rooted in the native community, and proud to offer artists opportunities to show their work. But I’m also hoping people will look at the work in ‘Hokah!’ on its own merits. Even though this is organized as a show by native artists, I hope what viewers see will broaden their expectations, that they’ll able to think about this work outside the category of ‘Native American art.’ In the end, it’s just really good work.”

“Hokah! Ten Years of Art at Ancient Traders Gallery” will be on view at Ancient Traders Gallery in Minneapolis through Jan. 30. There will be a “TGIFrybread” spoken word/open mic event in conjunction with the show on Jan. 16 (6 to 9 p.m.). On Jan. 23, the gallery has scheduled an artist panel Q&A  (6 to 9 p.m.). The closing reception for the show, also free, will be held Jan. 30.

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