Mention the term “Native American art” and many of us will think of primitive works, pre-Columbian era artifacts, and rock petroglyphs. Lucky for us, Native American art is still alive, thriving in the United States today.
There’s no denying that the country was home to some exquisite Native American artists highly skilled in the genres listed above. The paintings on the rock walls of Nine Mile Canyon in Utah are breathtaking. The remarkably polished birds carved from red jasper by the Poverty Point people in Louisiana and Mississippi delight the eye even today. The world-famous Navajo rugs, Kachina dolls of the Hopi, and totems of the Pacific Northwest tribes are national treasures.
But there are many fine contemporary American Indians artists today showcasing their gifts and talents in a way that brings fresh meaning to the term Native American art.
Joseph Lonewolf, a Santa Clara Pueblo from New Mexico, is known for using historical methods in pottery and embellishing it with sgraffito and bas-relief techniques borrowed from other cultures of the world. He is the son of pottery artist, Camilio Sunflower Tafoya.
Although deceased since 1994, painter and Modernist sculptor Allan Houser was of the Chiricahua Apache tribe of Oklahoma. His works grace the United Nations building in New York City and can be seen in a number of public buildings in Washington, DC, including the National Portrait Gallery.
For many of us, discussion of Native American art must include jewelry made from turquoise and silver. Navajo silversmith Tommy Singer, from Winslow, Arizona, is famous for his inlaid chip designs that he popularized in the 1970s.
Native American art now includes literary works and Karen Louise Erdrich is widely acclaimed as a most significant writer of the movement known as the Native American Renaissance. Her books, Love Medicine and The Beet Queen, are made up of seemingly disjointed but interconnected narratives, a style inspired by Willaim Faulkner, in the voice of many characters who tell the story of life on and around a North Dakota Anishinaabe reservation. The Anishinaabe nation, of which Erdrich is a member, is also known as the Chippewa and Ojibway peoples.
The photography of Lee H. Marmon, of the Laguna Pueblo of New Mexico, captured black-and-white portraits of the last generation of his tribe’s elders in such stunning fashion that his contributions to Native American art have appeared in the New York Times, Saturday Evening Post, and Time magazine. The cultural significance and enduring historical value of his photography led to the inclusion of his work in the PBS series, “Surviving Columbus,’ which won a prestigious Peabody Award.
Perhaps one of the most commercially successful contemporary Native American artists is the late painter R. C. Gorman, of the Navajo nation. The New York Times dubbed Gorman “the Picasso of American art.” Collectors of his works include Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Andy Warhol, and a long list of Hollywood luminaries. His beloved paintings most often feature bare-footed Native American women working with traditional tribal foods.