IACA Journal, Summer 2014 - page 8

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IACA Journal | Summer 2014
Pushing the Bounds of Tradition
Exhibit at the Abbe Museum Explores the Question:
“What is Traditional American Indian Art?”
In 2011, the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine presented
an important exhibit entitled
Twisted Path II: Contemporary
Native American Art Informed by Tradition.
It was import-
ant because it addressed head on the issue “What Is Traditional
American Indian Art?”
Native American artists have pushed the boundaries of what is considered traditional
art for many years, often facing criticism for working with new materials or creating
new designs. There is a perception that Native art is static; that it should never change,
or is somehow less authentic with the introduction of new ideas and materials. But
what is traditional? Are glass beads, introduced by Europeans and purchased at trading
posts, traditional? What about a basket made to hold eyeglasses? Who decides, and
how is that decision made?
As co-curator Rick Hunt, Abenaki, relates,
I am always impressed by how functional pieces can move toward decorative
and purposeful design. In this show, it is evident that the pieces reflect a move-
ment away from tradition and become a reflection of the artists’ own personal
psychology. There are beautiful ash baskets and Pop Art-type beaded bags, and
even contemporary fashion design evolving from traditional northeast Native
clothing.
When the first
Twisted Path
show was conceived, through a Technicolor dream
of mine, it was envisioned as an exhibit that would highlight the idea of the
Native artist evolving and often struggling in this Westernized society. Ques-
tions about Native identity, spirituality, art, and traditions emerged. What was
illustrated in this show, is that Native people and our culture are very much alive
and well and here to stay.
Twisted Path II
continues a dialogue that introduces the broader society to the concept
of the “modern Indian.” Native traditions have grown and evolved, allowing the adapta-
tion and incorporation of new ideas, methods, and concepts into Native culture.
As a result, Native artists are allowed to step out of the confines of entrenched stereo-
types in ways that let him or her maintain the integrity of their tribal identity. As such,
Native artists are invited and encouraged to explore concepts of modern popular art that
try to stay close to tradition; sometimes I
intentionally copy a basket of my grand-
mother’s, sort of as a way to make sure
that I don’t forget where I started.
It’s interesting because I never start a
basket until I know exactly what it’s
going to look like; I can’t ever start
weaving and just see what happens. I
also never make the same basket twice;
even if I tried to, no two baskets are ever
the same.
LEON, PASSAMAQUODDY
As a child growing up on the Rez, I often
dreamed of my own world. Alone, I
saw fairy tale castles growing out of the
shoreline. Women gently smiled down at
me as their gowns softly glittered.
My dream is to inspire other Passama-
quoddy people to make beauty in their
own way. Within the few surviving
materials of Northeastern Woodland
double-curve motifs, I found inspiration.
Ancient petroglyphs etched by shamans,
woolen blankets and peaked caps reso-
nate to form a new cultural identity. To-
day’s women remind us of all the beauty
the Passamaquoddies can still give.
Chocolate Wedding Cake
, by George
Neptune, 2011, brown ash, sweetgrass,
dyes.
New Cultural Identity,
by LEON, 2011,
cream natural wool with 24-Karat gold
plate seed bead, modern peaked cap. Abbe
Museum collections.
can contain distinctive yet subtle flavors of
ancient cultures.
Twisted Path II: Contemporary Native
American Art Informed by Tradition
exhib-
ited the work of five Wabanaki artists from
New England. Their work, inspired by
traditional materials, methods, and designs,
breaks from tradition in important ways,
becoming a form of expression unique to
each artist.
GEORGE NEPTUNE,
PASSAMAQUODDY
Weaving has always been a very spiritual
experience for me. Using the same tech-
niques my ancestors did brings me to a time
and place that my ancestors also visited, so
for me it’s like we are all weaving together. I
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