Native American art is much more than "long hair, feathers and sunsets," says the curator of the annual Red Cloud Indian Art Show, on display now through Aug. 11.
"There's so much more to it," said Mary Bordeaux of The Heritage Center at Red Cloud Indian School near Pine Ridge. "Contemporary Native art just isn't long hair, feathers and sunsets."
There are 163 pieces of art by 70 artists in this year's show, about 40 percent of whom hail from South Dakota tribes. Some of them, like Don Montileaux, Dwayne Wilcox and Martin Red Bear of Rapid City, are seasoned, successful Lakota artists who have been in many, if not all, of the shows since it began in 1969. Now in its 45th year, the show is the longest running one of its kind in the country.
Others are young, emerging artists from all across the U.S. — artists such as Hoka Skenandore, Bryan Parker and Charles Lee Her Many Horses — whose styles may push the traditional cultural envelopes that have previously defined Native artists.
"Traditional Native American art — things like ledger art — that's definitely something that shouldn't disappear. But the world is changing, and so are Native artists. Native Americans aren't living in tipis and chasing buffalo," said Her Many Horses, a 26-year-old Rosebud Sioux Tribe member who studied art at the University of Minnesota and came home to live and paint in Rosebud.
He took first place in the painting division for his abstract rendering of the Lakota trickster Iktomi. The geometric shapes and strong lines of "Iktomi: Hand Drum Solo" are a re-telling of a Lakota creation legend about the wood duck, a waterfowl known for its red eyes. In the myth, Iktomi tricks the ducks into letting him eat them by telling them that if they open their eyes during his drumming, their eyes will turn bright red. In the painting, two yellow bathtub duckies float off into the distance, with their bright, red eyes wide open.
"I'm still trying to preserve those stories, but just not in quite the same way," said Her Many Horses.
So is Parker, a 32-year-old Muscogee Creek tribal member from Tulsa, Okla., who doesn't like to impose categories or limitations on Native art.
"We are Native Americans and we do art," said Parker.
An Iraq war Army veteran, he graduated from the film program at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, N.M., but has turned his artistic talents to contemporary painting recently, including collaborative pieces with his wife, Molina, a Lakota beading artist. The newlyweds were married June 8 and their lime-green baby cradle, beaded and painted with traditional symbols, won the Savage/Zuern Award for most innovative use of traditional methods and techniques.
"I like to paint on found objects," he said by way of explanation for another piece in the show, a 1970s-vintage American Tourister suitcase. The suitcase is painted with scenes that are part ode-to-visiting-grandma's house and part social commentary on the Christian missionary boarding school experience that is shared by many Native Americans.
Red Bear, 65, attended school at Holy Rosary Mission, where Red Cloud Indian School is located. "My first Red Cloud show was in 1975," he said, and he's rarely missed one since. This year, he has two small pieces in the show. His art melds cultural/traditional images with contemporary art. Warrior Society is a common theme of his, but he mixes and matches it with images from his own history as a U.S. Army veteran, such as POW/MIA symbols, or combat insignia from Vietnam-era platoons.
Half Oglala and half Sicangu, Red Bear graduated from IAIA before earning a master's degree in art education from the University of New Mexico. He came home to South Dakota to teach, eventually developing the art curriculum at Oglala Lakota College, where he's taught for the last 26 years.
"I finally retired just this year to do my own work," Red Bear said. "I'm living my dream."
Her Many Horses says he grew up respecting artists like Red Bear and Montileaux, and he's excited to see his own artwork competing against and hanging next to theirs.
"Now, my stuff's like right up next to his," he said. "It's interesting to actually place and win awards next to somebody like Don Montileaux. It's weird."
His Iktomi painting may soon be hanging in Paris. As the winner of the Joelle and Nicolas Rostokowski Award, the painting will become part of the French art gallery's permanent collection, if it isn't purchased by someone else before the show ends.