Native American art has a deep purpose at the Great Plains Art Museum in Lincoln. November is Native American Heritage Month, and Ashley Wilkinson, director and curator of the Great Plains Art Museum, knew she wanted to do something to honor and recognize the Native people of the Midwest.
“A Vital Presence: Native Art at the Great Plains Art Museum” features around 50 works of art and spans over 80 years, according to Wilkinson. She said the title and purpose of the exhibition were crucial to success.
“I struggled with the title for a little while, just wanting to find something that expresses how important this art is to us, but also to the region,” Wilkinson said. “To me, ‘A Vital Presence’ meant that the presence of indigenous peoples is an important thing that we want people to know in the Great Plains. The presence of this collection in the museum is also important.
There are several well-known pieces at the Great Plains Art Museum, but Wilkinson said one of the most striking is a 2010 piece by Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie titled “The Promises Were So Sweet.” Wilkinson said this piece was a collaboration between Tsinhnahjinnie and the Great Plains Art Museum.
“She did an exhibit where she looked at historic photographs from our collection and then created new works of art based on them to reclaim the perspectives that were represented in those photographs,” Wilkinson said.
The photographs were taken by 19th century photographer William Henry Jackson. Wilkinson said Tsinhnahjinnie transmits power with this coin.
“She took these photographs, which are really small, and made them huge to highlight the presence of these people, to give them more agency and to draw attention to some of the issues that have plagued indigenous people in the Great Plains.” and beyond, ”Wilkinson said.
The information sign attached to the article states that the headline “The Promises Were So Sweet” refers to “Promises Made and Broken to Indigenous Peoples.”
This piece is the favorite of senior psychology major Sophia Lanphier in the exhibition. She said the voice and perspective of the play is strong.
“It’s so interesting that it started out as a photograph taken by William Henry Jackson and then the artist manipulated it and made it in order to take his voice and his story into his own hands,” Lanphier said. “It is very striking.”
Lanphier worked at the Great Plains Art Museum for four years and said this exhibit was different from previous ones that showcased Indigenous art.
“This exhibit really showcases the Indigenous voices themselves,” Lanphier said. “I have the impression that there are sometimes a lot of works that present or describe Aboriginal people, but not necessarily through their own point of view.
One painting on display in this exhibition which has a strong perspective is “Untitled (Snow Scene)”. Allen Sapp’s 1968 painting is derived from personal experience and deals with the daily life of Native Americans and what he observed growing up on the reservation. Under the biographical sheet he is quoted as saying, “I can’t write a story or tell one in the white man’s language, so I say what I mean with my paintings… I put it down so that it does not get lost. and people will be able to see and remember.
Wilkinson said another well-known play is by Laurie Houseman-Whitehawk, titled “Our Past, Our Future, Our Seniors.” The play, produced in 1991, is made up of three parts that tell a story. Although the piece can be interpreted, the artist’s biography indicates that the painting is meant to represent “Native American culture both past and present.” In the description, Houseman-Whitehawk said this painting is meant to represent “the beauty and strength of native women.”
Wilkinson said she liked this piece because it’s one of the most vibrant and eye-catching in the show.
“I love the bright colors, the use of the landscape to kind of shape the silhouettes and the details on the clothes and the rest of the outfits that the women wear,” Wilkinson said. “And then when you look at it closely you see all of these details and a kind of beauty of these women and the landscape.”
In 2018, Henry Payer was in the residency program at the Great Plains Art Museum. He has two pieces in this exhibit, and both pieces represent the story of his Ho-Chunk tribe.
“Henry’s work focuses on the historic displacement and relocation of the Ho-Chunk people from their ancestral lands in Wisconsin to Nebraska,” Wilkinson said.
Payer’s 2015 piece titled “K (no) w Exit” is a collage that features wall outlets, maps and a hotel key card. According to the description of the part, these elements “refer to the concepts of displacement and movement”.
Wilkinson said this exhibit is important to the community.
“It’s just important, I think, to share Indigenous art with our community and let them know what’s been done and what continues to be done by Indigenous people,” Wilkinson said.
Lanphier said walking through the exhibit left her in awe and she had a silent reflection. She said she has a deeper understanding and encourages everyone to view this exhibit until March 19, 2022.
“I hope they can see how indigenous peoples are so intrinsic to this region, and how their history continues today and how we should not forget what happened in the past,” said Lanphier said.
Wilkinson said she hopes people leave the exhibit with more curiosity about Indigenous art.
“I hope this really encourages them to seek out more Indigenous artists to find out more about them, just learn more about the history of Indigenous peoples,” Wilkinson said. “It’s just important to share Indigenous art with our community and let them know what has been done and what continues to be done by Indigenous Peoples.