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At The Nerman, American Indian Art Is Contemporary

This fall, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art opens its blockbuster exhibition "The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky," with works ranging from a 2,000-year-old stone pipe to beaded designer shoes from 2011. To spark enthusiasm, three enormous teepees now compete with the Shuttlecocks on the Nelson’s south lawn.

Meanwhile, across town, the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kan., kept its "Contemporary American Indian Art" show up longer than originally scheduled. The audiences who come to Kansas City for the Nelson’s show can see, at the Nerman, what director Bruce Hartman says is the largest collection of contemporary American Indian art in the country.

The Nerman counts 130 works by 95 artists who are reinterpreting and reinventing Native cultural traditions.

For example, Clinton Work, from the Kwakwaka'wakw tribe in the Pacific Northwest, recreates a traditional clam-gathering basket. He uses dental-surgery tools to carve intricate totemic designs into a plastic five-gallon bucket – the kind Home Depot sells. The result is gorgeous, radiant white and strikingly … plastic.

Linda Hawkins makes detailed pencil drawings of Plains Indian women in traditional clothing, holding umbrellas to protect them from the sun as they would have done in the late 19th century. But those umbrellas have bar-code patterns, and Hawkins draws them on a white paper shopping bag, commenting on consumer culture and the commercialization of American Indian art.

And there’s the work of Donald “Babe” Hemlock, a Mohawk who grew up in Brooklyn. He was a fourth-generation ironworker, one of the famously fearless Mohawks who worked on girders dozens of stories high, building the New York City skyline.

When Hemlock started making art, he created the baby-carriers known as cradle boards. He used traditional materials such as wood and beaver fur, but painted them to depict his unique perspective from high above Times Square. Amid the buildings and traffic below is a billboard for The Lone Ranger with Johnny Depp; reflected in an adjacent building is an image from “The Lone Ranger” TV series.

“He’s really addressing stereotypes and identity issues,” Hartman says.

Two of Hemlock’s cradle boards exist: one at the Nerman, the other at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian.

“You see a lot of historic work in museum collections, and I think that’s great, but there’s another side of the story,” says Norman Akers, associate professor of art at the University of Kansas and a member of the Osage Nation whose painting “Transience” is in the Nerman’s exhibition.

“We’re not locked into a 19th century, early 20th century timeline,” Akers says. “The more contemporary work opens a window to the present, lets people know that these traditions have evolved and moved forward.”

Hartman is also strengthening ties with Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence. Norbert Peshlakai is among the university’s graduates whose work is in the Nerman’s collection.

“When he arrived at Haskell, he enrolled in a painting class,” Hartman says. “The first day, they started talking about house paints and rollers.” Peshlakai explained that he wanted to be an artist, not a house painter. The painting classes were full, but there was an opening in a metal smithing class.

“He’s become one of the most famous living Native American silversmiths,” Hartman says. Hartman’s eye for such work dates back to his childhood in the 1960s in Lee’s Summit, Mo. Neither of his parents had an art background, but they became deeply interested in collecting American Indian art. Hartman brought that knowledge to the Nerman.

Now, curators at major museums are asking to borrow works from the collection.

One of those is the Nelson, which is borrowing four photographs by Wendy Red Star for its Plains Indians exhibition. Hartman says the Nerman also has plans to lend a piece to the Phoenix Art Museum, is talking with Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas, and recently had a request from the Peabody Museum in Salem, Mass., which is organizing a show that will travel to the Portland Art Museum and the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa.

Contemporary American Indian Art, through September 21 at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Artat Johnson County Community College, 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park, Kan., 913-469-3000.

A free press is among our country’s founding principles and most precious resources. As director of content-journalism at KCUR, I want everyone in our part of America to know we see them and we’re listening. I work to make sure the stories we tell and the conversations we convene reflect our complex realities, informing and inspiring all of us to meet the profound challenges of our time. Email me at cj@kcur.org.
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