Painting: The Least Traditional Native American Art Form

When we first considered presenting Native American artifacts as a special collection offered through Dogbotz Boneyard, we weren’t quite sure whether it was wise to include artwork, especially painting. Though Native American painting remains a popular art form about which people have e-mailed us, painting, as it’s understood within the context of European art history, is not a traditional art form for most Native American cultures.

Yes, native painting traditions exist in many tribes, but unlike their European counterparts, paintings were almost always used as decoration for apparel (for example, paintings on leather war shirts) or other functional items (tipi covers come readily to mind). Or, similar to their European cousins at Lascaux and other prehistoric sites, many North American indigenous paintings weren’t portable, such as petrogylphs on a nearby cliff face or other large rock formation. Before European contact, Native American painting was endowed with a variety of ritual and social purposes by diverse cultural groups throughout the continent. That said, perhaps the greatest example is Navajo sandpainting, which was originally created for religious ceremonies or for spiritual healing purposes. Today, some contemporary Navajo artists have designed secular versions of sandpaintings that can be acquired as cultural art.

Many contemporary Native American artists have adapted Western European painting styles to portray the people of their own tribes as well as their tribal experiences and worldviews. Such artists strive to maintain the traditions and culture of their people and reflect the dynamic and sometimes painful changes that they and their respective cultures have endured. Though the techniques of these paintings are not traditionally Native American, the styles, designs, and subject matter reflect the artists’ tribal heritage, and many of them are stunningly beautiful and incisive. Consider Peyote Man or Fire Woman by Sioux artist Kathleeen Kills Thunder, Wisdom of Our Fathers by Navajo painter Fred Cleveland, and Anasazi Parrots by Cochiti artist Joe H. Herrera (see images below).

In addition, contemporary Native American artists cover the gamut of expression in all media, from the acrylics of Fred Cleveland to the digital artwork of French-Ojibwa artist Michael Pierre Price. And, that’s just in the field of painting, for similar diversity exists in the sculptural artwork of Six Nations sculptor Clifton Henry and Navajo ceramicist Tom Vail, Jr.

The challenges currently facing many contemporary Native American painters are the conflicts between the styles of purism and modernism and between paintings created by genuine Native Americans and those works produced by artists inspired by Native American culture. Thus, such questions as, “How much tribal cultural imagery must be maintained within a painting (or any media, for that matter) to be considered by collectors as genuinely Native American.” Or, “Can a painting of any subject matter in any style, regardless of its point of inspiration, be deemed Native American as long as the artist himself/herself is an officially, tribally registered individual?” To date, the debate on these topics continues to be discussed.

The following paintings (and I’ve added a few sculptural pieces) are available for sale through The Tribal Perspective exhibit at the Dogbotz Boneyard Gallery of Art:

All the best,

Patrick Price
Proprietor
Dogbotz Boneyard, LLC
www.dogbotz.com

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