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Cathy Robbins Thinking Aloud

Contemporary American Indian Arts

The Chapel of Pablo Tac

Contemporary American Indian arts are now undergoing "a galactic explosion" of native artists as individuals, says Ramona Sakiestewa, a Hopi innovator in fiber. For more than a century, Americans and Europeans have gobbled up the "traditional" menu of Plains buckskin shirts, Navajo jewelry, and Northwestern masks, for instance. But today, American Indian artists are venturing into dramatically new directions. As I show in my book All Indians Do Not Live in Teepees (or Casinos) this is an exciting time for American Indian arts.

Today's American Indian artists are no longer tied to form, function or their tribal affiliation as the sole focus for their work. But even as they avoid "traditional" media or identities, some on the cutting edge still reach into their tribal and personal histories as they generate the future.

James Luna, a La Jolla Luiseño artist from southern California, first drew notice in 1987 with The Artifact Piece, a brilliant parody of anthropology. Wearing only a loin cloth, Luna turned himself into a live specimen. He lay on a bed of sand in a large display case at San Diego's Museum of Man. Around him, labels identified his tribal affiliations and scars on his body, and other cases displayed his college diploma, divorce papers and other personal minutiae. Museum patrons leaned over this "artifact" and quickly discovered it was alive.

By 2005, Luna was a featured artist of the Smithsonian Institution at the Venice Biennale, one of the world's leading exhibits in the modern art world. He created another brilliant commentary. Emendatio, consisting of installations and performances that spanned centuries, geography and peoples. The multi-part, multi-media installation told the story of Pablo Tac, a Luiseño Indian, born in 1822. At the age of ten, he arrived in Rome to prepare for the priesthood. During his studies, Tac produced the only native account of a California mission and described his people's suffering as they struggled to maintain their cultural and religious identity. Tac achieved his priestly vows died in Rome at the age of 19 and never returned home. To honor him, Luna constructed The Chapel of Pablo Tac, dedicated to the teenager and California Mission Indians. He furnished the 25-foot by 40-foot room with native and Catholic motifs like a lace-drapedaltar, cross with a four-feather design, chalice. A large tapestry with Tac's writings woven into it served as an altarpiece. To replicated a mission's thick, often whitewashed walls Luna hung sheets of white fabric decorated with blue crosses alternating with red diamonds. Throughout the Biennale people quietly and unwittingly slipped into the "chapel's" pews.

Across the country, museums are paying attention to artists like Luna. Over a decade, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York organized Art Without Reservation, three enormous exhibits (the latest runs until Oct. 21, 2012.) Another important venue is the National Museum of the American Indian's New York branch, which regularly exhibits work by contemporary artists like Steven Deo (Creek/Euchee), Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (Salish/Kootenai) and Lorenzo Clayton (Navajo). But you can also find them in Santa Fe, Salem (MA), Indianapolis, Kansas City and other cities. Prepare to discover the exciting world of contemporary American Indian arts.
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