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"The Land Carries Our Ancestors: Contemporary Art by Native Americans" at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

By Medicine Man Gallery on

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G. Peter Jemison (Seneca Nation of Indians, Heron Clan), Sentinels (Large Yellow), 2006..jpg

G. Peter Jemison (Seneca Nation of Indians, Heron Clan), Sentinels (Large Yellow), 2006 | Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. has failed to represent its nation since industrialist Andrew W. Mellon gifted his art collection to the nation for the purposes of creating a world class museum on par with those in Europe in 1937. America’s art museum was mostly just a European art museum on American soil.

Make no mistake, the collection was, and is, exquisite.

Raphael’s The Alba Madonna (1510).

Important, sublime paintings by Monet and Cezanne.

My wife’s favorite Matisse painting, the riotously colorful and joyous Open Window, Collioure (1905).

The pièce de résistance, Leonardo’s Ginevra de' Benci (1474/1478), the only painting by da Vinci to belong to a permanent collection in the Western Hemisphere.

How significant as an institution is the National Gallery of Art?

When Jackie Kennedy sweet talked the French government into loaning the most famous painting in the world, Mona Lisa, to America for exhibition, it’s first stop was the National Gallery.

None of those artists ever stepped foot in America, of course. There was no such thing as “America” when Raphael or da Vinci were alive. For the genius of their paintings, they have nothing to do with this nation, its land, its people, its history.

The National Gallery of Art is a Prado or a Louvre in Washington, D.C., in no way connected to its nation beyond location.

That’s changing.

It’s changing because the National Gallery of Art is finally taking the artistic production of Native Americans seriously. I’ve been closely watching the National Gallery announce more and more acquisitions of Native American artwork since about 2020. Significantly, when the NGA announced the acquisition of George Morrison’s (Grand Portage Band of Chippewa, 1919–2000) Untitled (1961) in January of 2023, it became the first Abstract Expressionist painting by a Native American to enter the permanent collection.

The biggest announcement was yet to come. That dropped this week when the National Gallery announced that Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (Citizen of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation, b. 1940) will be curating an exhibition highlighting artworks by some 50 living Native artists.

It marks the first exhibition of Native art presented at the National Gallery in 30 years and the first exhibition of contemporary Native art in 70 years.

Cara Romero (Chemehuevi), Indian Canyon (2019).jpg

Cara Romero (Chemehuevi), Indian Canyon (2019) | Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The “National Gallery.” America’s art museum essential ignored Native America until very recently.

I suppose that’s fitting. What could be more on-brand for America than ignoring its Indigenous inhabitants? Perhaps the National Gallery stealing Native American artworks from other museums and burning them?

“The Land Carries Our Ancestors: Contemporary Art by Native Americans” will highlight works by an intergenerational group of artists from across the nation spanning a range of practices including weaving, beadwork, sculpture, painting, printmaking, drawing, photography, performance and video. Collectively, it will powerfully visualize Indigenous knowledge of land/landbase/landscape.

Smith makes history in the process, becoming the first artist to curate an exhibition at the National Gallery.

“‘Breaking the Buckskin Ceiling’ is not a smooth transition, but the National Gallery of Art is engaged with making change in their system of collecting art as well as demonstrating their ability to be more inclusive in their exhibitions,” Smith said. “‘The Land Carries Our Ancestors’ is an example of more parity in their exhibition schedule and we are very pleased to be a party of this change.”

Here’s hoping the recent actions of the National Gallery signal to the rest of the field its high time to make up for 100 years of conscious and subconscious ignorance and spurs institutions across the nation to acquire and exhibit more Indigenous art.

Planned for two levels of the National Gallery of Art’s East Building, the exhibition will include several recent acquisitions for the museum’s permanent collection, including works by G. Peter Jemison (Seneca Nation of Indians, Heron Clan), Marie Watt (Seneca Nation of Indians/European descent), and Emmi Whitehorse (Diné).

Smith will underscore the self-determination, survivance, and right to self-representation of Indigenous peoples in her selection of artworks.

Important for posterity, a related book will be published by the National Gallery featuring each artist and a poem by Joy Harjo (Muscogee), 23rd US poet laureate.

The National Gallery of Art first acquired one of Smith’s paintings, Target (1992), in 2020. Her work uses humor and irony to examine myths, stereotypes, and the complexity of Native American life in contrast to the consumerism of mainstream society.

2023 is shaping up as a massive year for Smith with the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, another of the nation’s most prestigious, presenting a retrospective of her work debuting in April.

“The Land Carries Our Ancestors” will be on view at the National Gallery of Art where admission is free from September 24, 2023, through January 15, 2024, before traveling to the New Britain Museum of American Art from April 18 through September 15, 2024.

Emmi Whitehorse, (Diné) Fog Bank, 2020

Emmi Whitehorse, (Diné) Fog Bank, (2020) | Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

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