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Contemporary Exhibition Explodes Stereotypes of Native American Art


CULLOWHEE -- Picture in your mind a traditional Cherokee Indian basket. You can see its shape, the bands of bundled pine needles or rivercane wicker, the painted patterns drawn from tribal imagery.


But when you these baskets, do you reflect on treaty violations, the appropriation of Native names and imagery or forced removal from ancestral homelands?

You might if the baskets were made by Shan Goshorn. She’s Eastern Cherokee and among the many artists with work in “Return from Exile: Contemporary Southeast Indian Art.” The touring exhibition is on view through Dec. 8 in the Western Carolina University Fine Art Museum at Bardo Arts Center.

  “The biggest thing we’re known for are the baskets, but people focus in on that and think that’s all we have,” said Jeff Marley. an Eastern Cherokee artist, heritage arts department chair at Southwest Community College, alumni from Western Carolina University and a native of Cherokee on the Qualla Boundary.

“For native folks, there’s a lot of stereotypes projected by Hollywood, by popular culture and films,” he said. “We have to work to move beyond that.”

There are several dozen works in this exhibition from more than 30 artists artists whose tribes mark a band of southeast migration--forced and otherwise. Like all great contemporary art shows, the work makes you question, think, reflect.

“Anything that was done in more traditional forms was done from the necessity of whatever it was,” said Mary Welch Thompson, who makes functional pottery from her home on the Qualla Boundary. “We made that because we needed it. It wasn’t art.”

She sees “Return From Exile” as vital to connect younger audiences with their heritage and history.

“It’s religious in nature, political in nature, even things we didn’t want to talk about, such as discrimination or the removal,” Welch Thompson said. “Those points are being brought out and being discussed and, not just tribal members, but any of the younger generation can look at and relate to.”

"Gathering," a sculpture by Cherokee/Delaware artist Holly Wilson.

  Native artists have committed to abstract, narrative, subjective expression for half a century, but exhibitions such as “Return From Exile” still exist in their own cultural ecosystem. Rarely are contemporary works from Native artists brought into larger exhibitions at the nation’s leading museums and arts centers.

“Native Americans were taught to paint in a certain way, a very flat style, kind of traditional way, so there’s this expectation, not just from outside, but from inside about what Indian art should look like,” said Bobby Martin, a Cherokee artist from Oklahoma and co-curator of the exhibition.

It’s wrong, he said, to see contemporary and traditional Native arts as separate and different.

“The whole contemporary/traditional dichotomy is very artificial,” he said. “An exhibition like this hopefully explodes those things. We’re still telling our stories, still using traditional ways to tell those stories, but doing it in contemporary ways.”


Matt Peiken, BPR’s first full-time arts journalist, has spent his entire career covering arts and culture.
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