Life in America is inherently political.
Especially so if your heritage is indigenous to this land.
The upcoming Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art exhibit “(RE)CLAIM” features contemporary works by American Indian artists that explore identity, borders, bloodlines and our complex shared history.
Hayk Badalyan curated the exhibit. The 22-year-old 2016-18 Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellow said that as someone without indigenous heritage — he’s a first-generation American born to Armenian immigrants — he found the task a little terrifying.
Badalyan said he knew very little of Native American cultures prior to joining the Nelson’s American Indian Art department.
But during a conversation with Norman Akers, a professor of visual arts at the University of Kansas, the notions of “Nativeness” and “Otherness” resonated with him. As he interviewed different artists for an American Indian collection catalog for the museum, he kept hearing these concepts over and again, particularly from artists of multicultural heritage.
“They were saying, ‘Sometimes I embrace both of these cultural worlds, and sometimes I feel like they’re battling with each other,’” Badalyan said. “One artist, Julie Buffalohead, who’s half Ponca, half white, said, ‘Sometimes I feel too white to be Indian and too Indian to be white.’”
To help drive the point home, Badalyan had the artists describe the works in their own words. The results, which appear on the labels, are personal, poignant and powerful.
Artist Marcus Amerman writes of “Medicine Crow,” his glass-bead, thread and coated-fabric piece, that while some want to keep the worlds separate, he wants the cultures to clash.
“When the Earth is making diamonds, rubies and sapphires, it’s that heat and pressure from the collision of the plates that creates these new elements, new ideas and new adaptations,” he writes. “That’s essentially how I see myself and my art — a violent, ongoing, slow-motion collision between two worlds.”
Badalyan said his ideas for the exhibit evolved as he learned more about indigenous American cultures. His original thought was to have Indian artists respond to famous — or infamous — depictions of Native Americans, most of which weren’t created by anyone of native descent.
“Tonto and the Lone Ranger, the Kansas City Chiefs — these are ideas that were created by white people,” Badalyan said.
Over time, Badalyan and his mentors decided to let these contemporary American Indian artists speak for themselves.
“They certainly deserve it; these works are spectacular,” he said. “We wanted these contemporary native expressions of identity to show the many ways in which indigenous artists today look at their Nativeness.”
Pat Kruse’s “All Races’ Bouquet #6” is a wood, deer-sinew and fabric piece that uses traditional Ojibwe birchbark storytelling to, in some ways, envision a new history.
“I wanted to show that I’m sick and tired of racism,” Kruse writes. “I’m sick and tired of people deciding who has the right to be free, to live here or to have the same opportunities as the rest of us.”
In “Dark Reign,” Akers features the portraits of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and the like floating in flying saucers. Akers said despite most of them being born on this continent, our founding fathers were, in a way, an alien culture to the indigenous peoples.
Gaylord Torrence, one of Badalyan’s mentors and the Fred and Virginia Merrill Senior Curator of American Indian Art at the Nelson, said that even though these works were purchased by the Nelson over several years on each artist’s individual merits, he was struck by the common discussion of identity.
“I certainly didn’t acquire these works with that theme in mind, but it is definitely a dominant theme running throughout,” he said. “As Hayk started to pull these together, it was a bit of a revelation to me.”
In the particularly striking sepia photo portrait “How the West Is One,” artist Will Wilson presents himself in two profiles: He faces right in traditional dress and faces left in a cowboy hat. Wilson writes that he considers his work a good contemporary Native antidote to the iconic photographs by Edward S. Curtis.
“I am Native (Diné) and White (Irish/Welsh),” Wilson said. “I hope people look into themselves and realize we all embody conflict and resolution.”
“RE(CLAIM): Indigenous Artists Reflect on Identity” opens Dec. 14 in Gallery 214 at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak St., and continues through June 16. For more information, 816.751-1278 or www.nelson-atkins.org.