Exhibition Celebrates Artwork Of Native Women: 'Making Is About Our Survival' The "Hearts of Our People" exhibition is devoted entirely to the art of Native American women past and present. "We're still very powerfully here," says Anita Fields, one of the artists in the show.

'Making Is About Our Survival': Exhibition Celebrates Artwork Of Native Women

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And finally today, an art exhibition at one of the oldest museums in Washington, D.C., is making history with the first major show of Native American women artists. NPR's Neda Ulaby has this report. It's from the Smithsonian Institution's Renwick Gallery.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Of course, Native American women's work has been shown in the Smithsonian almost from the beginning, but that does not mean it was recognized as such.

ANITA FIELDS: It wasn't being called Native women's art. It was the war shirt that was worn by the warrior, and so it was named for him.

ULABY: That's one of the artists in the show. Anita Fields is Osage, from Oklahoma. Her bright red, lavishly embroidered ceremonial wedding coat is part of a survey that begins with a thousand-year-old geometrically painted pot, presumably crafted by a Pueblo woman, to a video interview with a contemporary artist from the Santa Clara Pueblo. Rose B. Simpson painted a pickup to look like pottery.


ROSE B SIMPSON: When I was a little kid, my mom was fixing the truck. When I was a little kid, my mom was growing our food.

ULABY: This show, called "Hearts Of Our People," celebrates traditional art forms and pushes back against the idea that Native women's art is mostly beadwork and pottery. Ramona Sakiestewa is a Hopi artist who's also in the video.


RAMONA SAKIESTEWA: I'm very interested in deep space, like, the cosmos and stars because that's a scientific vocabulary that Indigenous people in the Americas have had. But I think everybody thinks we're just out collecting nuts and berries and that's it, not that our cultures are based in really deep science.

ULABY: The exhibition is co-curated by Kiowa artist Teri Greeves.

TERI GREEVES: Really, from the moment I was born, I didn't understand anything other than Native women being, you know, main creators of our art.

ULABY: She says she's been preparing for it since she was a girl on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming.

GREEVES: My mother ran a trading post, and it was mostly women that she dealt.

ULABY: Women selling their art and passing on cultural knowledge to their children. That legacy lives in this show with an Ottawa Potawatomi artist named Cherish Parish from Western Michigan.


CHERISH PARISH: My mom really pushes the idea that, you know, I'm a sixth-generation basket weaver, but we've been doing it for years and years before cameras were even invented as well.

ULABY: Her mom is here at the museum. Kelly Church recently won a major fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She says the black ash trees her family's always used for their baskets have been largely destroyed by invasive species, so her grandkids might not learn the craft.

KELLY CHURCH: We still harvest. We still teach. But it's a lot harder to find our trees. And we're possibly going to have to skip a generation. And when you go to a ash stand, I'll admit, you know, I go out there and I - I'll get tears in my eyes when I see all of those dead trees.

ULABY: Devastation and trauma are inevitable in art that's helped people survive centuries of genocide and cultural erasure. Jill Ahlberg Yohe is the show's other curator. She is not Native, but she curates Native art at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, where this traveling exhibition started. Yohe points to one disturbing image, a life-sized lightbox photo of a woman lying curled up, facing away, seemingly unconscious and nearly nude.

JILL AHLBERG YOHE: And a large gash crosses her back, a wound that seems so deep that it is incapable of being healed.

ULABY: It looks real, but it isn't. Artist Rebecca Belmore, who's Anishinaabe, created the gash with special effects makeup and scarlet beads that look like blood.

YOHE: It is stitched together through beads. It is stitched together through women's work.

ULABY: And it speaks to the disproportionately high rates of violence faced by Native American women, says artist Kelly Church.

CHURCH: This kind of making is about our survival. That's what I love about all these pieces here. They speak to that strength and the resilience that we've had for thousands of years right up until today and thousands of years into the future.

ULABY: For now, artist Anita Fields says this show puts Native women right where they belong - with credit and context in some of the most important museums in the country.

FIELDS: You know, the whole idea to wipe us off the face of the earth didn't work. And so, you know, we're still very powerfully here.

ULABY: Being here in the nation's capital is great, Fields says, but it'll mean even more to her when the show travels next to her home state to the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Okla. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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