McNay Exhibition Links Native American Experiences of Past and Present

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Courtesy / McNay Art Museum

Kiowa Dude Paying His Respects to a Young Kiowa Belle. Silver Horn, circa 1887

This week will be the last chance to visit the McNay Art Museum’s exhibition We’re Still Here: Native American Artists, Then and Now.

The one-room exhibition in the museum’s downstairs Charles Butt Paperworks Gallery is small but noteworthy.

The exhibition, which closes Sunday, provides an opportunity to see a collection of almost 20 drawings from celebrated and prolific Native American artist Silver Horn, who lived from 1860 to 1940. Curator Lyle Williams, who is Native American, views the exhibition as a rare opportunity to see drawings by Silver Horn, a member of the Kiowa tribe.

Silver Horn’s works are sought after in part because of their vibrant color palette and their “strikingly modern patterns and abstractions,” Williams said.

Silver Horn, like other ledger artists of the Plains Indians, depicted mythological and historical narratives in his work, which was executed on paper, muslin, and hide using graphite, colored pencil, ink, watercolor, and crayon.

Despite the fact that he was self-taught, the artist captures the life of Plains Indians in literal and symbolic, realistic and dream-like representations. The influential Silver Horn was witness to a great deal of change and conflict concerning not only his people but also the world at large.

All of the pieces in this exhibition are from a full sketchbook of Silver Horn’s that was donated to the museum in the 1960s. All told, he created more than 1,000 images during his lifetime.

Noting that he regularly fields requests from historians and other academics wanting to see the rare works, Williams said that “those in the know are quite impressed to see all of these pieces at once” and in such good shape.

As part of a concerted effort to prevent the exhibit from feeling “confined to the 19th century,” and out of a desire to remind viewers that “Native American cultures and art still exist and are still important in the present,” Williams recruited local artists Ed Saavedra and Joe Harjo to each contribute work in response to the Silver Horn drawings.

Saavedra’s four small-scale drawings feature images that invite contemplation about cultural appropriation and forced assimilation. An Apache Scout helicopter, for example, is a war machine that appropriates the name of a people that still survives.

Harjo’s contributions, from his Indian Performance Prints suite, speak to the reality that Native American individuals and cultures are still here – often in mundane, everyday spaces just like anyone else.

Courtesy / McNay Art Museum

Series titled Indian Holding a Weapon Joe Harjo, 2018

One especially poignant footprint piece by Harjo is titled Indian Holding a Weapon (Self-Doubt).

Williams said that this piece deals with the way in which “the question of identity and how we relate to our place in society” can end up leading “to self-doubt and various forms of self-harm” for contemporary Native Americans.

Another Harjo piece, Indian Holding a Weapon (Skittles), is a direct reference to Trayvon Martin, the black 17-year-old fatally shot in Florida by a neighborhood watch volunteer who was later acquitted on murder charges. The work uses the name of the candy Martin had with him when he was killed in 2012 to show how the innocuous can become fearsome when filtered through misunderstanding and prejudice.

“One of the big things I was sensitive to is the monolithic and stereotypical views of Native American culture and art as one single thing,” Williams said. “There is actually this incredible diversity.”

As “the least visible minority,” Williams said that Native Americans are especially vulnerable to the identity-effacing effects of stereotyping.

“I hope that the message is that Native American people aren’t just a part of our history but they are a part of our present,” he said.

When people fully view Native American cultural identity as alive in the present, Williams thinks it’ll be harder to disrespect and caricaturize it.

“We are not stereotypes or material for free appropriation,” he said.

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