DENVER — NATIVE American artists have forged their own gateways into the art world as traditional potters, jewelers, and weavers, and now more than ever, as contemporary artists. Sometimes these latter artists use strictly traditional materials to make wholly new statements, but just as often, they express themselves in nontraditional media.
An insightful show at the Denver Art Museum (DAM), ``Into the Forefront: American Indian Art in the 20th Century,'' examines the evolution of the Indian arts movement over the last 100 years as part of the museum's centennial celebration.
Early in the century, designers like Gustav Stickley (who were influenced by the English Arts and Crafts movement) advocated a simpler living environment, a move away from Victorian style. He called for cleaner lines, indigenous materials, and traditional native American crafts.
According to Richard Conn, chief curator of DAM's native American collection, Indian curios were sought-after collectors' items at the turn of the century, part of the romanticization of Indian life. To counteract that image, Mr. Conn includes a series of photos depicting the dire plight of Indians living in poverty during that time. As a way of maintaining their cultural identity, tribes retained many traditional arts.
In the 1930s, as collecting Indian art became more competitive, several important exhibitions around the country displayed it as high art rather than as mere craft. Hopi painter Charles Loloma's ``Avachhoya or Spotted Corn Kachina Dancer'' was commissioned for the Golden Gate International Exhibition (1939). Another impressive Hopi painting by Loloma, Victor Coochwytewa, and Herbert Komayouse, was also commissioned in 1938 for the important Exposition of Tribal Arts in New York. Economics of Indian art
As the Depression wore on, the Indian Arts and Crafts Board wanted to help the tribes develop an economic base. The board and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), among others, encouraged Indian artisans to diversify.
Santa Clara Pueblo potter Margaret Tafoya experimented with carved pottery. Baskets were made to suit a variety of uses in the Western home. Traditional Indian designs were applied to tablecloths and napkins.
Maria and Santana Martinez, eminent potters of San Ildefonso Pueblo, rediscovered the archaic art of black-on-black pottery. Silver jewelry became more diverse. At one point, Seminole (from Florida) appliqued fabric was even made into an after-ski outfit.
Unfortunately, young Indian artists were bullied in BIA boarding schools to produce ``Indian Art'' - in most cases a style developed by the teachers themselves, the exhibit points out. They were trying to help Indians make a product that would sell to curio collectors, and the so-called ``Santa Fe style'' did sell well.
Water-based media, soft pastel colors, flat, plane-on-plane perspective, and an outline around all forms produced a cartoonlike effect. This continued until the end of the '60s. The museum includes an example of the Santa Fe style by the renowned sculptor Alan Houser (Chiricahua Apache, 1953). He has long since eschewed that style and developed his own distinctive sculpture.
``The artists felt and were encouraged to feel that they had to stick within traditional boundaries,'' Conn says. ``If they weren't working in traditional media or using cultural icons, they weren't `real Indian' artists. It was basically a protectionist attitude. They were trying to keep Indian work distinct from the mainstream in order to maintain an economic base - trying to assure the Indian artists they would have an income from their work.''
After World War II, Indians who had been in the service attended state colleges and other schools on the GI bill, Conn says. Those in art schools were exposed to the whole of art history and a variety of mediums. They began to look at their traditions in light of European and contemporary styles. Indian activism in 1960s
During the Civil Rights movement and the political protests of the 1960s and '70s, many Indian artists became activists. Lively and ferocious art began to appear, some of which appears in the DAM exhibit. ``Custer Lives in Humboldt County'' by Janet Campbell (Coeur d'Alene, 1973), a seriograph of a poem protesting the murder of a young Indian man by whites, provoked strong feelings when it first appeared and continues to stir consciences.
Perhaps the best part of the exhibit is the gallery dedicated to contemporary work. The threads of the history of 20th-century Indian art come together here. A fabulous contemporary tapestry, ``Katsina, 21'' by the renowned Hopi weaver, Ramona Sakiestewa, reinterprets a traditional craft in contemporary high-art terms.
An elegant white vessel by Preston Duwaynie (Hopi) unites traditional Hopi beliefs with the artist's free expression in one elegant egglike form. He was inspired by the Hopi ``emergence'' myth, which explains how humans emerged from a miserable life underground, and also by the birth of his first child.
Another stunning ceramic, ``Three-Corn Sityatki Bowl'' by Al Qoyawayma (Hopi) demonstrates modern innovation in the ancient form. The surface of the bowl is a marvel of delicacy, the small raised corn imagery subtle and beautiful.
Many of the exhibition pieces focus on Indian struggles for identity between two cultures, the problem of violence among disenchanted youth, of racism in society, and economic opportunity.
Famous politically motivated artists like Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (Salish-Shoshone), Hachivi Edgar Heap-of-Birds (Cheyenne), Diego Romero (Cochiti), and James Luna (Luiseno-Diegueno) puncture stereotypes about Indian arts just as they skewer a variety of Euro-American prejudices.
``The show is intended to explain exactly what happened to native American art,'' Conn says, ``and to the artists themselves in this century - from the romantic curio-collecting era, to this point, where [Indians] are taking charge of the direction in which their art is moving, taking charge of their careers and their own body of work.''
* ``Into the Forefront: American Indian Art in the 20th Century'' continues at Denver Art Museum through Nov. 10.