The emerging personality of Native POP — the Great Plains native art market and celebration now entering its sixth year — carefully balances creative support with a competitive spirit. Viewers and artists both benefit from it.
Art markets, like art itself, thrive on inherent tensions. Reputations get built on the deft weave of beauty and stimulation to stand out without becoming obnoxious. To survive, markets must develop community patrons and consumers. It’s a business. For the artists, it’s an investment. It’s also a celebration. It’s art. And it all has to come together.
Rapid City’s POP has the added requisite of honoring native cultural roots, bridging divides formerly defined by war, and educating newcomers to topple stereotypes.
Native POP: People of the Plains — A Gathering of Arts and Culture, is developing a tradition of tackling all of this. Add in fourfold growth of Native POP participants since its inception, and you see an event transitioning into adolescence with a potential for much more.
Will it become the Santa Fe up north? It’s not fair to compare an up-and-comer with America’s century-old premier institution, but Native POP is worth watching. At the very least, it’s worth a look from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday on Main Street Square.
POP, as some participating artists know it, People of the Plains as others call it, is a one-day, jam-packed cultural and artistic smorgasbord. This year, it features:
• 41 native artists of the Great Plains, ranging from select rising talents to accomplished artists with international reputations.
• Culture bearers — demonstrators of ageless native artisanship, including traditional native cooking (buffalo-based wasna), porcupine quill work, and Lakota games — games Lakota youth would have played during the past 200 years.
• A film series showcasing Native American short films and documentaries.
• A Native American fashion show.
• A Native American concert.
Prepare to have your expectations challenged. Today, the art and music of Great Plains Native Americans includes abstract and digital mediums, hip-hop artists and blues guitarists, plus traditional, pre-reservation offerings.
“What I’ve noticed after six years,” said Native POP executive director Peter Strong, “we always have this strong core of both emerging and established artists, dedicated artists. (But) There’s also a section that changes each year. There’s always some really fresh, energetic, shooting-for-the-stars young artists who liven up the art world and challenge the established artists.”
Visitors to Native POP, Strong said, “are getting a survey of the indigenous creativity in the country — film, fashion, cultural knowledge — a taste of all of this, a gateway into this vast world of all of these things going on.”
At its core, POP is a marketplace, a place where people can buy art directly from artists.
“We’re always trying to encourage more people to become buyers and collect authentic native art from native artists,” Strong said. “There’s a decent collector base here,” he said, “but it’s not a huge collector base.”
Western South Dakota has more than three Native American reservations, he said.
“They’re right here,” he said, “and if you want to continue to see artists thriving here, get those pieces that speak to you.”
In addition to being a market, POP also strives to elevate culture bearers — the people who carry on the traditional knowledge of creating the regalia of Native American life.
“They’re almost demonstration artists,” Strong said. “And then there’s a concert to finish out the day.”
Native POP grew from the generosity of internationally acclaimed Japanese artist Masayuki Nagase, who spent five summers sculpting the stone components of "Passage of Wind and Water," the impressive works that dot Main Street Square and sometimes get covered by wet and playful children.
Nagase offered part of his sculptor’s commission to anyone willing to create an art event connected with the work’s theme. Native POP was later rebranded to reflect the focus on Native American Plains artists.
There were 10 artists that first year, but it was the start of what many in the Rapid City art community had wanted for decades: a high-quality native market. The dream was that “Native artists from the Great Plains could come to Rapid City and show their work,” Strong said.
There is a pecking order to Native American art markets, and each promotes a unique group. The premiere Santa Fe market consists mostly of southwestern art. Other high-caliber markets exist in Oklahoma, Indianapolis and in a few other places. Sioux Falls offers the 30-year-old Northern Plains Indian Art Market, held each September and operated by Sinte Gleska University of Mission, on the Rosebud Indian Reservation.
POP is the only market to represent all of the Plains peoples, tribes from a region stretching from Texas to Saskatchewan, from the Mississippi River to the Rockies.
The question of what constitutes Native American Plains art is only slightly less intimidating than the question, "what is art?"
There are more than 500 recognized tribes in the United States, said John Paul Rangel of Santa Fe, who oversees Native POP marketing. Each has a distinct culture. Looking at all of the Great Plains cultures collectively, however, there are a few common denominators, such as bead work, quill work and pictographics.
Culture can reflect how people endeavor to thrive in what nature presented. Even the abstract pieces of Plains Natives show the influences of the teepee and the buffalo, Rangel said.
“Plains tribes use headdresses,” he said, “and those have importance.”
Said Strong: “A lot of the uniqueness is based on the land, on the geography.”
There’s a connection to the place where we all live, the Black Hills, he said.
There’s also a connection of Native POP to Rapid City as a place of simmering racial tensions.
“There have been a lot of difficult times in race relations,” Strong said.
One goal for POP was to have a great mix of the entire community, promoting the dialogue that can break down deep-seated distrust.
“Art is one of the ways you create that dialogue,” Strong said.
Rangle agreed: “Having art and culture in an accessible way makes it possible for these relationships to build.”
Supportive and yet competitive is the distinctive feature of the artistic culture beginning to define Native POP. Artists led the creation of the market, Strong said, and they remain a primary driver.
On the awards night prior to the market, special awards are presented along with best of class.
“Nobody else does it that way,” Rangel said. Other competitions typically present ribbons for first, second and third places, creating a hierarchy.
“It’s about giving them recognition,” Strong said.
Instead of ribbons, Native POP awards feathers, connecting with Plains tribal heritage.
It’s subtle, but the awards structure creates camaraderie, Rangel said.
“Each year, everybody is bringing their best,” he said.
“I’ve seen steadily,” Strong said, “an increase in quality and also innovation.”
Because of the camaraderie, artists feel comfortable trying something different, even things that might not be permitted elsewhere.
Recently, three mid-career artists came together to create a collaborative painting, which won best of two-dimensional art.
“I’m confident,” Strong said, “that wouldn’t have been tried at another market, or accepted at another market.”
A reputation for innovation could carry Native POP beyond its aspirations to become a showcase for cutting-edge talents. Everybody wins.