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First-Ever Exhibit Devoted to Native Women’s Art Will Show in U.S. Capital Before the 2020 Election

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The exhibit collection includes a 2014 artwork titled “The Wisdom of the Universe” by Christi Belcourt, a Native artist from Canada whose acrylic paintings depict floral patterns inspired by Métis and First Nations beadwork.

 Courtesy of Collection Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; © Christi Belcourt 

The exhibit collection includes a 2014 artwork titled “The Wisdom of the Universe” by Christi Belcourt, a Native artist from Canada whose acrylic paintings depict floral patterns inspired by Métis and First Nations beadwork.

The landmark exhibition celebrates artworks by indigenous women from more than 50 native communities across the United States and Canada.

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When the first exhibition dedicated to indigenous women’s art begins its much-awaited run in Washington, D.C., the landmark show will acknowledge North America’s long history of silencing Native voices, but it will also pivot away from this record to forge a new path.

On view from February 21, 2020, through May 17, 2020, at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists aims to shine a light on the artistic achievements of Native women from more than 50 communities across the United States and Canada. Centered around themes of legacy, relationships, and power, the major museum show features a variety of textiles, beadwork, sculptures, paintings, videos, and photographs made by Native women artists over the past 1,000 years—most of which exhibitors say have gone widely ignored by the mainstream art world.

Indigenous artist Nellie Two Bear Gates (1854-1935), who was also known as “Gathering of Clouds Woman,” created beaded suitcases depicting the traditional history and culture of Yanktonai Dakota tribes.

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The idea for Hearts of Our People originated in 2013 after conversations between Jill Ahlberg Yohe, associate curator of Native American Art at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and Teri Greeves, independent curator and member of the Kiowa Nation (a Native American tribe of the Great Plains). Their hope was to emphasize the important contributions of Native women to American art: For example, that indigenous women could be considered the early creators of American abstraction, as they have used patterns, lines, and shapes to represent the world for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. We wanted to honor all of the Native women—past, present, and future—who have created our worlds,” cocurator Teri Greeves wrote in an essay published on Medium. 

The show also endeavors to explain why Native women have used specific artistic practices over the past millenium—whether to honor their ancestors, express their personal aesthetics, or depict a connection between humans and nature. “We did not walk into this exhibition with the idea that it was going to be a definitive or complete ‘study’ of Native women’s art,” Greeves explained. “That would be impossible. But we are hoping that it will start conversations.” 

The exhibit includes artist Joan Hill’s 1990 painting titled “Women’s Voices at the Council.” Hill, who is of Muscogee Creek and Cherokee descent, is one of the most awarded Native American women artists.

To curate the collection, Yohe and Greeves worked closely with an all-female advisory panel of 21 Native artists and experts of indigenous art from the United States and Canada. As a result, the Native tribes represented in the exhibit range from Yup’ik in Alaska to Osage in the Great Plains. Works by 12 Canadian artists are also included in the North America–encompassing collection, which was intentional. “The borders between the U.S. and Canada weren’t created by indigenous people, but by outside influences,” Yohe explained in a statement about the exhibit. “All [of] this work is connected to our history.”

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The Hearts of Our People museum exhibit is accompanied by a print catalogue that includes essays, personal reflections, and poems by members of the all-female advisory who helped curate the collection. When the first-of-its-kind exhibition takes the stage in the U.S. capital at the start of 2020, the book will be available for purchase in the Renwick Gallery’s on-site store. But if you want to delve into its pages sooner, you can also buy a copy of the book online now—an appropriate way to commemorate the close of November, which marks Native American Heritage Month in the United States.

Wiyot artist Elizabeth Hickox (1875-1947) crafted traditional baskets used by the indigenous people of California. For her 1924 artwork “Lidded container,” Hickox created intricate Karuk baskets using twined porcupine quills.

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Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists will run from February 21 through May 17, 2020, at Washington, D.C.’s Renwick Gallery. This will mark the third stop on a four-venue national tour: The exhibit debuted at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in June 2019 and moved in September 2019 to Nashville’s Frist Art Museum, where it will remain on view through January 12, 2020. The show will travel to the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where it will be from June 28 through September 20, 2020.

>> Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Guide to Washington, D.C.

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