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The First-Ever Exhibit Devoted to Native Women’s Art Is on View in the U.S. Capital

By Sarah Buder

Feb 21, 2020

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The exhibit 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 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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The first exhibition dedicated to indigenous women’s art has officially begun its much-awaited run in Washington, D.C. at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The landmark show, which is free to attend, acknowledges North America’s long history of silencing Native voices, but it also pivots away from this record to forge a new path.

On view through May 17, 2020—just steps away from the White House—Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists shines 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 82 artworks dating from ancient times to the present, showcasing 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.

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. The show also endeavors to explain why Native women have used specific artistic practices over the past millennium—whether to honor their ancestors, express their personal aesthetics, or depict a connection between humans and nature.

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.”

Each thematic section provides wall text in the artist’s Native American or First Nations languages, as well as in English. Recorded spoken-word performances complement the gallery displays, and a free audio guide narrated by a number of the featured artists speaks to the influence Native women have on their communities’ cultural identity. 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. “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. That would be impossible. But we are hoping that it will start conversations.”

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

Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists runs through May 17, 2020, at Washington, D.C.’s Renwick Gallery, which is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (Admission is free.) The first-of-its-kind exhibition 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. The book is available for purchase online as well as at the Renwick Gallery’s on-site store, so you can delve into its pages before or after you visit the show, which is now on view in the U.S. capital leading up to the 2020 election.

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Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists in Washington, D.C., marks 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 remained on view through January 12, 2020. After its Renwick Gallery run, the show will travel to the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where it will be from June 28 through September 20, 2020.

This article originally appeared online in November 2019; it was updated on February 21, 2020, to include current information. Products we write about are independently vetted and recommended by our editors. We may earn a commission if you buy through our links.

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

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