Upstairs at the VMFA, contemporary art is meeting traditional Native American crafts as the new exhibition “Hear My Voice: Native American Art of the Past and Present” opens a dialogue between Native American culture and the outside world.
The project, which is two years in the making, was curated by Dr. Johanna Minich, the assistant curator for Native American art. She hopes the exhibit will open a conversation about current, living, breathing native peoples and their artwork as the exhibit makes its way through Virginia, beginning at the VMFA this past Saturday.
“Native Americans are still here and still producing art,” Minich said. “A lot of people talk about Native Americans in the past tense, but they are still here, and I feel this exhibit really highlights that.”
Rather than following the more common chronological gallery style that so often accompanies Native art, Minich broke this exhibit into three larger themes that combine old and new. These three themes set up the artists against different conversations: community, nature, and the outsider. Objects in this exhibit range from 400 A.D. to present day.
“Other exhibitions have tried to show this broad range, and the typical way of showing that is this chronological notion, where you have the whole history of a particular people then at the end you have the contemporary work,” Minich said. “I feel that there’s this psychological break between historic and contemporary, so with this mash-up, I’m hoping that people will understand that these broad themes, like communicating nature or your community, are things that native people have always understood.”
Throughout the exhibit, six different ‘sound showers’ have been installed that play recordings of six artists who talk about their work. As part of the exhibit’s effort to create open dialogues, the recordings are first to allow patrons to actually hear the voices of these artists as well as provide insight into their work and process.
“Even today, these historic pieces really carry that Native voice into modern times,” Minich said. “The more we learn about the past, the more these objects really make sense. This was a person who actually created a thing with a purpose and a story to tell, and that person is still here.”
Alongside Native American staples of VMFA’s permanent collection, such as the Crow war shirt or carved rattles, works like that of Virgil Ortiz are displayed alongside them. Ortiz owns a fashion and jewelry line in New York, but also spends his time making traditional Cochiti Pueblo pottery at his home in New Mexico. “It’s been a really good experience to learn how all of these people respond to the modern world,” Minich said.
Minich hopes that by seeing these contemporary works which branch outside of what white America stereotypically believe is Native art, it will spark conversations about what it means to be Native American and how that identity has been embraced and developed.
“I have actually had people come up and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize that there were still native people,’” Minich said. “Granted, some of these groups have become much smaller, and some of them have actually expanded and their culture has grown. As a person living in America, it really behooves us to learn about that part of our history.”
Works in this exhibition have been drawn from the VMFA’s permanent collection as well as private collections, the Fralin Museum of Art at UVA and the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William and Mary, among others. In 2018, the exhibit will travel to the Museum of the Shenandoah valley in Winchester and will finish its state-wide tour at the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke.
Throughout the exhibit’s duration, which will last until November 26, the VMFA will host a variety of events that focus on “Hear My Voice.” Events will be held from October 12 to October 14, including the ‘Hear My Voice Artist Panel’ in which three of the artists, Molly Murphy Adams, Jeremy Frey, and Virgil Ortiz, will visit the museum to talk about their work and answer audience questions. There will also be a college night and a basket weaving demonstration over that weekend.
“I think this exhibit opened at a time where we need to be reminded that dialogue and communication are paramount to our success as human beings, to be part of something that is bigger than just us, to be part of a community and to be part of an outside experience,” Minich said.