Smithsonian American Art Museum Presents the First Major Museum Exhibition to Explore the Achievements of Native Women Artists

Nationally Touring Exhibition Opens in Washington, D.C., Feb. 21, 2020 at Its Renwick Gallery

Women have been a predominant creative force behind Native American art, yet their individual contributions, for centuries, have largely remained unrecognized and anonymous. In the first major thematic exhibition to explore the artistic contributions of Native women, “Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists” celebrates the achievements of these Native women and establishes their rightful place in the art world.

Christi Belcourt; Métis, born 1966; The Wisdom of the Universe, 2014; Acrylic on canvas; Unframed: 171 × 282 cm (67 5/16 × 111 in.); Art Gallery of Ontario; Purchased with funds donated by Greg Latremoille, 2014; 2014/6. © Christi Belcourt

The critically acclaimed exhibition “Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists” was organized by Jill Ahlberg Yohe, associate curator of Native American Art at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and Teri Greeves, an independent curator and member of the Kiowa Nation. At the core of the exhibition is a firm belief in the power of the collaborative process. The Minneapolis Institute of Art formed an all-female Exhibition Advisory Board, which included Native artists, curators and Native art historians, to generate new interpretations and scholarship relating to the art and its makers, offering multiple perspectives that explore traditional and contemporary voices and techniques foundational to the art of Native women.

The presentation at the Renwick Gallery includes 82 artworks dating from ancient times to the present, made in a variety of media, from textiles and ceramics to sculpture, time-based media and photography. This exhibition is multi-lingual with wall text and labels presented in the artist’s Native American or First Nations languages, as well as English, aiming to present the works in the context of each artist’s own culture and voice. “Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists” is on view at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum from Feb. 21 through May 17, 2020. Robyn Kennedy, Renwick Gallery manager, is coordinating the presentation in Washington, D.C.

We are honored to present this groundbreaking and bold exhibition, designed by and for Native women artists, that showcases their powerful voices and artistic traditions,” said Stephanie Stebich, the Margaret and Terry Stent Director at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “We are also delighted to work with our sister Smithsonian museum, the National Museum of the American Indian, in offering dynamic programming to explore questions of modern Native identity and artistic practice. This exhibition also reflects the important work of the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative focused on amplifying women’s voices, reaching new audiences and empowering future generations.”

Hearts of Our People” highlights the traditional and integral role of Native women artists in serving the cultural, economic, diplomatic and domestic needs of their communities, reaching beyond longstanding conventions of treating these artworks as unattributed representations of an entire culture. The exhibition is organized according to three overarching themes: “Legacy,” “Relationships” and “Power.” These themes are a testament to the underlying purpose with which Native women have historically made art and enable visitors to note variations in the works of art created for similar purposes across time and Native cultures.

Legacy” examines the way in which Native women artists acknowledge their lineage by creating works that simultaneously embody the experience of previous generations, address the present moment and speak to the future. Fiber work by D.Y. Begay (Navajo) and sculptural works by Cherish Parrish (Ottawa/Pottawatomi) are featured in this section of the exhibition.

Relationships” explores the concept of connectivity and reciprocity that exists beyond the human world to include animals, plants, places and living and nonliving elements. Christi Belcourt’s (Michif) painting “The Wisdom of the Universe” and the intricate bead work of Nellie Two Bear Gates (Gathering of Clouds Woman, Iháƞktȟuƞwaƞna Dakhóta, Standing Rock Reservation) highlight this link.

Power” encompasses works created for diplomacy and influence to empower others and for the empowerment of oneself. Photography by Rebecca Belmore (Anishinaabe) and Rosalie Favell (Métis [Cree/English]), adornments by Keri Ataumbi (Kiowa/Comanche) and Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone–Bannock), and shoes embellished by Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone–Bannock) represent the spiritual, social and political power Native women hold.

Free Public Programs: Opening weekend events at the Renwick Gallery (Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street N.W.) include a land acknowledgement and welcome by Gabrielle Tayac (Piscataway Nation) Friday, Feb. 21, 2020, at 10 a.m., and a gallery talk at noon by Ahlberg Yohe and Greeves, organizing curators of the exhibition. The museum will host a film screening Saturday, Feb. 22 at 3 p.m., at the museum’s main building (Eighth and F streets N.W.) as part of the annual Mother Tongue Film Festival, which celebrates cultural and linguistic diversity by showcasing films and filmmakers from around the world.

The museum is organizing a symposium in collaboration with the National Museum of the American Indian Saturday, March 28, 2020, at 2 p.m. The program, which will take place at the National Museum of the American Indian (Fourth Street and Independence Avenue S.W.), features artists Jolene Rickard (Tuscarora), Carla Hemlock (Kanienkeháka), Anita Fields (Osage) and Kelly Church (Ottawa/Pottawatomi); a panel discussion will be moderated by Greeves and Ahlberg Yohe. Additional information about these programs is available online at www.AmericanArt.si.edu/events.

The accompanying catalog, Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists, includes essays, personal reflections and poems by 20 members of the Exhibition Advisory Board and other leading scholars and artists. It is available for purchase ($39.95) in the museum store.

The exhibition’s presentation at the Renwick Gallery is the third stop on a multi-city national tour. Following its closure in Washington, D.C., the exhibition will travel to the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where it will be on view June 28, 2020–Sept. 20, 2020.

Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists” is organized by the Minneapolis Institute of Art. The exhibition has been made possible in part by a major grant from the Henry Luce Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

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