The Hearts of Our People: Female Native American Artists Celebrating their Unique Heritage

Venere Alpina by Kay WalkingStick (Cherokee), 1997 (Minneapolis Institute of Art, photo © Kay WalkingStick)

The world’s art galleries and museums are full of famous artwork, but women have been under-represented in the world of art for years. While this is true, there is an additional bias that has not been addressed until now. The works of native woman artists. 

The wonderful exhibition, ‘Hearts of Our People’, is featured at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. February 21 – May 17, 2020;  and then on to Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, June 28 – September 20, 2020.

The exhibition, as described by the Smithsonian Museum, is multilingual with descriptive text presented in both the artists’ Native American or First Nations languages, as well as English; aiming to present the works in the context of each artist’s own culture and voice.

Featuring 15 artists, 82 pieces of work, all with their own narrative, but united in celebrating their unique heritage.

Christie Belcourts is descended from the Metis a multi-ancestral indigenous group, whose homeland is in Canada and parts of the United States. Christie takes her inspiration from nature; with her exquisite work The Wisdom of the Universe, 2014, acrylic on canvas featured in the exhibition.

Jamie Okuma. Jamie is a powerhouse of ideas, combining art with fashion. The inspired Adaptation ll –  the beautiful and meticulously beaded and quilled Louboutin shoes are Okuma’s way of reimagining Native couture in a reflective manner as two worlds collide.

Kelly Church is a fifth-generation basket maker, born in 1967. She grew up in southwestern Michigan. Her mother is European, her father is Odawa, an Indigenous American group. Kelly’s Basket called Sustaining Traditions–Digital Memories is a homage to the emerald ash borer, the insect that has destroyed ash trees essential to making traditional ash baskets renowned in the Upper Midwest of America. Placed within an egg-shaped basket is a flash drive containing what Kelly Church describes as ‘all the teaching of the past’ compassionately brought up to date.

Rebecca Belmore is a politically conscious performance art commentator and renown socially aware installation artist. Rebecca often uses the body to address violence and injustice against First Nations people, especially women; highlighting the ever-present power of resiliency and survival. Belmore, an Anishinaabe artist and visionary, produces for Hearts of Our People

A life-sized lightbox image called Fringe, for example, shows a half-nude woman lying on her side and turned away from the camera; a gash protrudes across her back, sewed up by strings of blood-red beads.

About the Exhibition and COVID19

The Smithsonian Institution applauds this wonderful exhibition, Hearts of Our People, presented in close cooperation with top Native women artists and scholars, this major exhibition of art and work honours the achievements of Native women artists from the United States and Canada. Their proficiency from painting, textiles and ceramics, to photographic portraits, to a stunning portrayal of El Camino, the best of both worlds show innovation and technical mastery. 

The Smithsonian American Art Museum remains closed due to the effects of COVID19, it is not possible to virtually view Hearts of Our people, but it is possible to visit the back catalogue of well-curated online exhibits that complement the theme. 

Women in contemporary art, is featured in this online experience through the photography of Native photojournalist Tailyr Irvine, featured at the National Museum of the American History with an installation with Russel Albert called Developing Stories. Tailyr succeeds in breaking down stereotypes of Native peoples, to portray stories that show the complex diversity of their contemporary lives.

This carefully curated online exhibition in collaboration with Smithsonian Institution would not be complete without mentioning the National Museum of American Indian George Gustav Heye Center, New York. The virtual exhibition celebrates through the art of photography the little known heroism of Charlotte Edith Anderson Monture, registered nurse and poet. Rejected from Canadian nursing school because of her Native heritage became the first Native nurse to volunteer for the U.S Medical Corps in 1917 and serve her time on the front line during World War One.

Its ingenious forethought of the Smithsonian Institution to place these exhibitions online during troubled times means we can appreciate women in contemporary art from afar and then up close, as soon as the museum opens to the public. A note for your diary.

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