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Arts & Culture

Native American Art, Past And Present

"Lady In Waiting" by Native American artist Robert Freeman and on view at the Mingei International Museum.
"Lady In Waiting" by Native American artist Robert Freeman and on view at the Mingei International Museum.
Native American Art, Past And Present
When we think of classical art, we often think of urns or statues or the Parthenon. But Native Americans were making art during the same time period. A new exhibit at the Mingei International Museum explores Native American art of the past and present. The work of four contemporary artists is also included in the show.

The classic art of Native Americans involves many medium, from painted images and weaving, to elaborate bead work and wood sculpture. The art spans many locations and nations in Indian culture. It also spans centuries, right into the present day. An exhibit at the Mingei International Museum presents work by Native American artists who lived decades ago, and work made by contemporary California Native American artists. The comparisons and differences are compelling.


Jennifer Garey is an adjunct faculty member in the American Indian Studies program at Palomar College. She curated the exhibit "In Their Own Words.


Robert Freeman is a self-studied artist. He is one of four contemporary Native American artists featured in the Mingei exhibit.

"In Their Own Words: Classic and Contemporary Native American Art" is on view at the Mingei International Museum through September 5th.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The classic art of native Americans involves many mediums from painted images and weaving to elaborate bead work and wood sculpture. The art spans many locations and nations in Indian culture. It also spans centuries right into the present day, an exhibit at the Mingei international museum presents work by Native American artists who lived decades ago, and work made pie contemporary Native American artists. The comparisons and donees are compelling. And here to tell us more are my guests issue Jennifer Garey is an adjunct faculty member in the American Indian studies program at Palomar College. She curated the exhibit in their own words. Jennifer, good morning.

GAREY: Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: And Robert Freeman is a self studied artist. He is one of four contemporary Native American artists featured in this Mingei exhibit. Robert, good morning.


FREEMAN: Good morning, Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Jennifer, when we think of classical art, most of us get images in our heads immediately of European classical art. When Native American art is talked about, it's always characterized as traditional. You have a semantic problem with that?

GAREY: Absolutely. And I think that's one of the aspects of this exhibit that we're trying to work through. Traditionally, traditional art we see is usually obviously not European. You see it in African art, and you see Native American artists called traditional. But the classic art, it is of the same time period. It has the same kinds of qualities of it's made by artists who are doing new things, there are certain stylized formats to it. So it is classic. So that's why we deliberately called it classic art, to kind of break that stereotype.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The kind of idea of folk art and traditional, rather than these are artists who are working in a certain style and certain mediums and just because we are not familiar with them doesn't necessarily make it any less important.

GAREY: Exactly.

CAVANAUGH: What would you say constitutes native American art, Jennifer.

GAREY: Well, Native American art, first, it is art, so you kind of can't separate it from the fact that it is art, whether it's classic or whether it's contemporary. I think it has a certain place in -- there's sort of two elements to it. One is that particularly in contemporary Native American art, artists are not only artists in the contemporary world, but there are also issues with being Native American that come out through the art. So you see a lot of times, oftentimes artists doing things that have to deal with identity issues or have to deal with language issues or decolonizing issues or colonizing issues of so there's that part of it that makes it sort of unique. And it has its own kind of art history, if you will, within it. The other part about Native American art that sort of makes it unique is that it is regulated to a certain extent by the federal government. You have public Indian arts and crafts board law, which determines -- it's a law put into place to protect Native Americans in a truth and advertising law. So you have people who are nonnatives creating art and selling it as native American art. But what if does is it's tied into the federal rules so that the federal government determines who is considered Native American. And if you're not on those rules, then the question comes up, is your nation, if it's not considered, if it's not recognized, if it's a nonfederally recognized nation, then where does that leave the artist? Just last May of this year, in 2011, the Acjachemen or Juaneño who are state recognized in Orange County were denied federal recognition. So an artist who happens to be a Acjachemen or Juaneño, where does that then leave that artist? Are they then breaking the law?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's crazy so this bureaucracy gets involved into making the Hart.

GAREY: Exactly.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Robert freeman, your works, some of your works are on display on this exhibit. Do you think of yourself as a Native American artist or an artist who happens to be Native American?

FREEMAN: Yeah, I'm 5/8ths Indian, to clarify what an Indian is. I'm enrolled in Crow Creek reservation in South Dakota. I'm 3/8ths Sioux, 1/8th Yaqui, and 1/8th Luiseño Indian, and I was born on Rincon Indian reservation. So an Indian by federal guidelines, has to have some degree of Indian blood. But that's set by each individual tribe.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm talking about in your work.

FREEMAN: Yeah, I'm gonna get to that.


FREEMAN: I served in the army, got out in 1960, I didn't know what to do, had no plans, never went to art school, didn't know artists. But I picked up Time magazine, I looked in there at that time, it was Rothko, de Kooning, Motherwell, Jackson Pollack, and I liked that artwork, that was in time magazine. I had no affiliation with art. Had no desire to be an artist. But from that, it got me interested, I was just telling Jennifer about Roschenberg, how he came along and he did mattresses that he put a goat's head and splattered paint on it and hung it on a wall and that was art. You know? And so from the on set, this was in -- in about 1960, you can consider contemporary Native American art. Because actually when we began. Because there were guys like R. C Gorman, a lot of well known artists today, but I was with them, and I was one of the guys that did that. And I did it from the very beginning. And so I am a Native American, I am Indian, but I've always done what's considered contemporary art.


FREEMAN: I don't make pottery, I don't we've baskets, I don't make jewelry. I don't think what in people's minds -- but what I do do is I write joke books about the comedy situation of this. How they expect Indians to have Tom Toms and wear feathers and have long hair and all that kind of thing.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I wonder if I can, I don't believe that I can, but your, a lot of your art, finely drawn images. You do work in a number of different mediums, I know. A lot of them incorporate image was animals that actually, if you look at them long enough, you realize that the animals are actually composed of human beings who are twisted in different ways to make up that pose of the animal. And I believe that there's an image of a horse made up of three people that's one of your most popular works. Why do you believe that is, and what draws you to creating an image like that?

FREEMAN: Well, again, you have to go to the exhibit and see it.


FREEMAN: Go to the Mingei museum in the middle of Balboa Park to see our stuff. Actually, I was impressed, I think all artists are impressed by various painters. My -- the one main artist I'm -- noticed was Rafino Tomayo, Mexican, a great painter. And then of course Salvador Dalou can't get away from Salvador Dalnd then Pablo Picasso. But I liked Salvador Dalcause of surrealism, I do a lot of artwork for my own enjoyment, my own pleasure, and I'm able to sell a great deal of it. But I like that idea of if there's so much photography in art, and everybody's trying to mimic photographs. I try to stay away from that and just paint things, and most of my working I create out of my own mind. I don't use reference. I don't use any, you know, I just -- what's in my mind. And a lot of times when I sit down to participate a paintings, I own a studio at Rincon Indian reservation, and I'm still creating out of the Indian reservation, I'm surrounded by Indians, but I'm creating artwork that almost could be considered nonIndian. I'm just an artist, a contemporary artist.

CAVANAUGH: Because your rage is so wide. I know, I looked at why are website, and it really does encompass a huge number of mediums and topic, and so forth. I wonder, Jennifer, could you give us a sense of the other contemporary Native American artists who are in this exhibit?

GAREY: Well, if you go to the exhibit, you'll obviously see Robert's work, and you'll also see Billy Siesel Warsoldier's work, L. Frank and Catherine Nelson Rodriguez. And these of these artists doing something completely different. And part of that, although they're all painters, although Robert does a lot of other things, which you see in his painting, and they're all Southern Californian artists, but beyond that, they're all very unique. And for instance cath Lynn Nelson Rodriguez' work is very intimate. She talks a lot about things that she's gone through as a woman, dealing with mental illness, and things that are very, very personal. Sheave does talk about life on the reservation to a certain degree. But not as much. Whereas L. Frank's work is a lot about colonization. So she deals with issues on where Native Americans are, and where they are in this process, being a nation within a nation, and things like that. And Billy war soldier's work, he's very expressive, he uses a pallet knife to paint with, very bold colors, and he's sort of deals with sometimes, personal issues in his ability to express himself. And so they all have their different aspects to them, and that is exactly the intent, was to kind of give the visitor an understanding of the longevity and continuum of Native American art, and the diversity of it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You know, you speak about having written and illustrated joke books, Robert. The one image from your exhibit that -- from the Mingei exhibit that is being promoted as yours on the website is this really somewhat humorous ironic image of a short skirted woman sitting in front of a tepee, a traditional Indian tepee, I believe she's drenching a beer, and you can see a TV inside the tepee. Where did you come up with that?

FREEMAN: Well, actually, you know, like from the movies, mostly, because I saw movies like everybody else. And from the motion picture industry, they would make movies about Indian people. And to me, they were making movies about something that I knew nothing about. Like the Indian maiden waiting in front of the tepee for a warrior to come home, and really cornball kind of stuff, and all Indians are out killing and shooting the calvary, you know. And I might be a bit of a coward, but I wouldn't have been a warrior back in them days. I would have stayed inside the tepee.


FREEMAN: Yeah, yeah. So there's a whole misconception about what Indians are. So I was doing this humorous artwork, and selling it pretty good, and I thought, well, I'll just do a joking boo. So I wrote the first -- my first joke book is in 1971, which is decades and decades ago. And a writer commented that I'm the father of Native American comedy. And there's a famous -- Charley hill, he's a really funny Native American comedian, and he used -- he took material out of the three joke books that I wrote.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What is one of your favorite jokes?

FREEMAN: All of them. But as I went along, I was making comments issue for instance, there's an Indian on a horse and he's going along, well, he has a suited chauffeur sitting right behind him with his high boots and little cap on, and he's riding right behind him, well, I just -- in the caption, he's a rich Indian. 'Cause he has a chauffeur, you know? And it's just stuff that is kind of ridiculous. It makes you kind of think too, but it's all in a, you know, it's a humor thing.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And I would imagine amount of your stuff is visual as well because you just -- you're illustrating, and the part of the illustration is part of the humor as well. You know, I'm wondering, Jennifer, how do you mesh these styles? I mean, all of your painters have different styles. All your contemporary painters. And then you have the classic Native American art, and we're running low on time, so can you give me some just hints about how you do that at this exhibit?

GAREY: Well, I think, well, basically it's -- we put classic art on the floor. And then we have contemporary on the walls so much that's when you first walk in, you see that defense. Then we have the classic art sort of defined by its age, and then we have classic art defined by it's blended. So when you have culture contact and the two contact, and you see its growth and government there. And then we even have contemporary art on the floor, but made in classic style. So I think when you go in, you kind of get an idea before you ever read the labels that there's this continuum.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have to end it here, but I want to thank you both for coming in. It sounds like a really exciting exhibit. It's call In Their Own Words: Classic and Contemporary Native American Art, and it's at the Mingei international museum through September. Jennifer and Robert, thanks a lot.

GAREY: Thank you very much.

FREEMAN: Thank you Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And if you would like to comment please go on-line, Days. You've been listening to These Days. Stay with us for hour two coming up in just pay few minutes here on KPBS.