Exhibit Highlights Pioneering Indigenous Glass Artists
Glass, with its inherent technical and artistic properties, has proven to be a compelling medium for Indigenous artists to share traditional stories and designs and explore contemporary issues. The soft, shape-changing material is at the center of Clearly Indigenous: Indigenous Visions Reimagined in Glass (until June 16), an exhibition at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which features works by 33 Indigenous artists, as well as those by renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly.
The exhibition features the work of 29 artists from 26 tribes and nations in the United States and Canada as well as four Pacific Native artists. Over 130 pieces of contemporary glass art are on display, including vessels, boxes, totems, animals, human figures, mosaics, masks and other unique objects that honor tradition but also explore challenges modern.
“Indigenous iconography has a history, tradition and continuity in design, but contemporary artists, perhaps to a much greater extent than earlier Indigenous artists, feel free to use their own creative sense”, says Letitia Chambers, the former executive director of the Heard Museum in Phoenix, who co-curated the exhibit with Cathy Short. “It’s not just about copying patterns from the past, but building their own artistic sensibilities into their pieces and into the objects they make.”
Indigenous artists have been plagued by false standards of ‘authenticity’ since the colonial period. The late Lloyd Kiva New, founder of the Institute of American Indian Arts (also in Santa Fe), challenged these beliefs.
“What Lloyd New said is if it’s an Indigenous artist, it’s Indigenous art,” Chambers says. “An artist must be free to be creative or you lose the sensitivity of the artist.”
It was New who planted the seed for this exhibit years ago when he explained how the studio glass art movement and the contemporary Indigenous art movement intersected at the IAIA in 1974. Dale Chihuly established the institute’s first hot shop and taught glass there for a semester. . Later, he founded a school of glass in Washington State, sparking a movement with strongholds in the Southwest and Pacific Northwest.
Chambers first told the story in a book that became the catalog for the exhibition. “As I worked on the book, I realized there was a larger story that could be told with the exhibit and that’s how Indigenous students continued to use their iconography and designs – historic and traditional designs – as well as contemporary Aboriginal designs. in their glass art,” she says.
The exhibit is organized by subject and includes sections titled ‘The Sky Above’, ‘Ancestors’ Voices’ and ‘Bridging Two Worlds’, which reflect the dichotomy of life in Indigenous and mainstream cultures.
Vessels and baskets present interesting opportunities for reinterpretation in glass, Chambers says, with Pueblo artists tending to make glass vessels reminiscent of clay pots, and Northwest Coast artists drawing on their material traditions. textured, woven or wooden. Striking examples include Aunt Fran’s Star Basket (2021) by Dan Friday (Lummi), two together (1995) by Tony Jojola (Isleta Pueblo)—one of the first native glassblowers—and Cobalt Blue Cosmic (2010) by Robert “Spooner” Marcus (Ohkay Owingeh). Seventh generation master weaver Ho-Wan-Ut “Haila” Old Peter (Skokomish and Chehalis) works the glass woven materials.
The rise of the Indigenous glass art movement may have as much to do with the artistic properties of the medium as with its technical requirements. Glasswork, and more specifically glassblowing, is a team effort with multiple artists working in support of a leader.
“I suspect that the fact that it’s collaborative in nature has influenced Aboriginal interest in glass art because, of course, Aboriginal societies are very collaborative and community-driven,” says Chambers.
Glass art is a multi-step process with many opportunities for artistic collaboration. Tlingit artist Preston Singletary, a widely acclaimed glass sculptor, collaborated on several projects in the exhibition, including Yellow butterfly cylinder (2005) by Tammy Garcia (Santa Clara Pueblo), which were modeled after vessels found during archaeological digs and found to contain chocolate residue.
“The more technical stuff you do and the more hands you have on the deck, the more likely you are to get it into the oven in one piece,” Raven Skyriver (Tlingit) says of the teamwork required to the manufacture of glass. Skyriver is known for its technical mastery and exacting detail. Her work is influenced by the natural beauty of her home on Lopez Island, Washington.
“I do photorealism if I can. It’s a beautiful technical challenge and it’s my way of paying homage to it,” he says of the fish, sea mammals and other animals he sculpts. Skyriver’s Adrift (2015) brings visitors to the exhibit closer to a profoundly beautiful but endangered sea turtle.
Glass, as a medium for the interpretation of culture and history, offers qualities that other materials do not have: transparency and translucency.
Jody Naranjo is a traditional Pueblo potter who sources clay from the earth, forming pots by the coil method, sanding them with riverbed stones, and firing them in pits of wood and cow manure . Her designs, which she describes as being made in a “cheerful, youthful pueblo style,” are etched into the surface of the pot.
She started collaborating with Singletary, engraving her designs on blown pieces, and it was “a whole new world,” she says. “Seeing something from the inside and seeing the light coming through really changed my designs.
The range of techniques, colors, textures and manipulations possible with glass create a vast palette of individual expression and explore contemporary themes such as human rights, climate change and life in the modern world. Two examples include kiln-fired glass mosaic Supreme respect of the two spirits (2013) by Angela Babby (Lakota), and Charm (2021), an installation of glass charms that play with ancient and modern imagery, light and shadow, by Colville Reservation Confederate Tribesman Joe Feddersen.
The exhibition at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture attracted new audiences to Aboriginal art due to their interest in glass and received praise from glass art enthusiasts. “Other glass artists, including Chihuly, who saw the exhibit, praised the artistry of the works,” Chambers said.
- Clearly Indigenous: Indigenous Visions Reimagined in Glassuntil June 16, Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, Santa Fe, New Mexico.