Social justice, 'survivance,' exhibition craft guide Denver Art Museum's reinstalled Indigenous Art Galleries
By Chadd Scott
Installation image, 2016. Fritz Scholder (Luiseño), Massacre in America: Wounded Knee, 1972. Gift from Vicki and Kent Logan to the Collection of the Denver Art Museum.
A massive, multi-year, $175 million upgrade to the Denver Art Museum campus featuring a total renovation of the eight-story Gio Ponti-designed Lanny and Sharon Martin Building (formerly referred to as the North or Ponti Building) opened to the public on October 24, 2021. The Martin Building restoration includes expanding gallery space and now offers visitor access to stunning city and mountain views. The transformed building – one of the few high-rise art museums in the world – showcases DAM’s encyclopedic permanent collections from around the world and throughout history.
As part of the of the Martin Building overhaul, the collection galleries have been updated and reconceived with a commitment to telling more inclusive stories, including the welcoming of more contemporary artist and community voices to provide increased societal and historical contexts.
That includes DAM’s world-renowned and comprehensive collection of Indigenous artwork and artifacts from across North America, a collection last reinstalled in 2011.
“It was considered groundbreaking at the time for doing the very simple thing of focusing on Indigenous artists, rather than just on cultures, really focusing on the humanity of the artist – the eye and the hand – looking at how audiences connect with the people behind the art,” John Lukavic, Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Native Arts at the Denver Art Museum, said of the 2011 reinstall. “That was revolutionary in how Indigenous art was represented in art museums, but now everyone is doing it, so we asked ourselves, ‘How can we push this even further and how can we also tell stories that are relevant to people today?”
Lukavic and his team landed on a three-pronged strategy for doing so focused on social justice, “survivance” and improved exhibition craft.
Privileging Native voices and perspectives unites the effort.
“We want visitors to have an opportunity to not only hear directly from Indigenous artists and Indigenous people about their experiences, but ‘see’ through their art, through the lens they’re using to communicate these issues of history and identity and land and place and community,” Lukavic explained.
Every step of the process was guided by a seven-member Indigenous Community Advisory Council representing a diversity of tribal affiliations and demographics. The museum also worked closely with the Southern and Northern Cheyenne, Southern and Northern Arapahoe, Southern Ute, Northern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes who recognize Denver and the surrounding areas as their ancestral territories.
A dedicated gallery titled “Home/Land” at the center of DAM’s new Indigenous Arts of North America presentation honors these Indigenous communities.
Indigenous Arts of North America Galleries. Photo by James Florio Photography
Any meaningful contemporary representation of Indigenous artwork must address the social justice issues most important to Indigenous people. Missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and transgendered. The horrific legacy of Indian Boarding Schools. Militarized police opposing Native water protectors. The Landback movement. Abuse by clergy against Indigenous communities in Alaska.
“Those are the (issues we’re presenting) in our gallery that we had not done to this degree in the past, but it’s something that was absolutely needed,” Lukavic said. “The art that that we’ve been collecting tells these stories in very succinct and powerful ways.”
DAM’s interpretation of Indigenous art takes on these topics which find their roots in historic colonial/settler viewpoints while being manifested in the present day, challenging all-too narrow, often racist, typically inaccurate dominant narratives around these problems.
“Artists are creating these works because these are stories that need to be known,” Lukavic said of how the reinstallation goes beyond mere display and appreciation of aesthetic beauty into deeply meaningful cultural, historic and individual storytelling. “We’re able to tell stories that have long histories, but are still impactful to people today and give our visitors a true sense that Indigenous people… are also living in the present (and) something we need to be aware of today.”
Developed and popularized by Anishinaabe critic and writer Gerald Vizenor, “survivance” can be defined as “an active sense of presence over historical absence, deracination, and oblivion.”
As described by the University of Nebraska Press, publisher of Vizenor’s “Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence:” “The nature of survivance is unmistakable in Native stories, natural reason, active traditions, customs, and narrative resistance and is clearly observable in personal attributes such as humor, spirit, cast of mind and moral courage in literature.”
Fritz Scholder’s Massacre in America, Wounded Knee (1972) represents a dramatic lesson of survivance. A seemingly serene winter landscape with a horse on the horizon line is foregrounded by an open pit burial grave reminiscent of widely-seen historical photographs following the Wounded Knee massacre.
To contextualize this powerful artwork, DAM engaged its Community Voices label program where guests from outside the museum are asked to provide additional perspectives for particular pieces.
“Instead of us interpreting it, we worked with an Indigenous rapper from Wounded Knee, South Dakota who is from the community where this historic event happened, asking him about how he feels when he sees this,” Lukavic explained.
In the gallery, an excerpt of what Terrance Jade shared can be seen along with a QR code for visitors to access his full response. Jade works through pain, trauma, recognition of loss, eventually spinning his reaction to survivance.
“Even in the face of all this, it didn’t work,” Lukavic said of America’s attempt to exterminate its Native inhabitants. “Indigenous people are still here, preserving, maintaining cultural knowledge through generations, that’s what gives (Terrance Jade) hope. When you focus on survival, you become an active agent in the future and it’s not so much reacting to forces imposed upon you.”
Indigenous Arts of North America Galleries, Northwest Coast and Alaska Photo by James Florio Photography
DAM’s Northwest Coast and Alaska Native Gallery features more than 2,700 square feet of reimagined, immersive gallery space, presenting works by Indigenous artists from the western coastal region of North America, stretching from Puget Sound to southeastern Alaska. The broader, Indigenous Arts of North America Galleries, offer 17,000 square feet of artwork and objects created by artists from more than 250 Indigenous nations across what is now called the United States and Canada. Artistic traditions within these cultures span the past 2,000 years.
“In the past, our permanent gallery spaces were very traditional, presented in a very formal way that people would expect in a museum,” Lukavic said. “In the newer (Hamilton) building (across the street from the Martin Building) we were doing changing exhibitions in a very cutting-edge way using ‘exhibition craft’ where we understand how the structure, layout, design, color, sounds in the gallery – whatever that may be – can impact the way visitors experience the galleries and experience the art they are seeing. What we were doing with the changing exhibitions was highly successful, so we said to ourselves, ‘How can we learn from that and apply it into our permanent gallery spaces?’”
The newly designed galleries put community and artist voices at the forefront with reimagined interpretive materials and video testimonials speaking directly to Indigenous experiences. Dynamic videos that locate artworks in their historical contexts and illustrate their relevancy today are part of the experience.
“We take historical art and contemporary art and put them side-by-side; the contemporary art in many ways activates these historical works to make them meaningful and important for today, and the historical works can at times provide context for the contemporary art that is being exhibited,” Lukavic said. “It creates this interesting dialogue across time, across cultures, showing the rich diversity of Indigenous aesthetics and Indigenous people in general.”
This presentation aims to enlighten visitors to not view Indigenous people a monolithic whole, but to understand their tremendous diversity through the visual diversity they’ve creatively expressed.
More evidence, thankfully, that DAM’s reinstall aims for a greater purpose than simply displaying art.
“Our hope is that visitors walk away with a much deeper, not just appreciation, but understanding of the experiences, challenges, but also successes Indigenous people have experienced over time while also recognizing the diversity and beauty of the art being created,” Lukavic added.