Last year, when artists Terrance Houle, Adrian Stimson, and Jamison Chas Banks did a performance at Santa Fe’s Indian Market, a giant outdoor fair that features the work of Native American and First Nation artists from across the U.S. and Canada, they raised a few eyebrows. Inspired by a vaudeville act, the performance began when the artists entered the garden at the Institute of American Indian Art in costumes that signified their non-Native ancestry, including an Irish cap, lederhosen, and a Prussian general’s suit. A bugle sounded over loudspeakers. They handed out fake artifacts to the audience. Then they painted their faces white, stripped down to buckskin loincloths, and, donning fake feather hats, proceeded to smash the artifacts and wrestle one another while drinking a bottle of whisky.
Houle, who is a member of the Blood Tribe and grew up in Calgary skateboarding, going to punk shows, and performing in pow-wows, said he did the performance to “fuck shit up.” The Indian Market “always seemed like the market of kitsch, this symbol authenticity, like, ‘Come on down and get your Native art,’” he says. “I was burnt out of being in these First Nations shows. So we we decided to renounce our ‘Indian-ness’ by taking on other identities, and to look at the Indian market, and Native Art in general, and say, Who are we playing for? What is our culture? Who is buying into it?”
Since its founding in 1922 as a showcase for Southwestern tribal arts, the Indian Market has long been associated with textiles, jewelry, and pottery. But in recent years, the fair, presented by the Southwestern Association of American Indian Arts, has taken a contemporary turn, expanding its classifications to include filmmakers, graphic designers, and experimental categories. Hence the presence of Houle, graffiti artist Nani Chacon, whose murals embed pin-up girls into ancestral mythologies, and Dyani White Hawk, who makes playful abstractions with porcupine quills and sequins. Vibrant and ironic, their works are changing the market’s tenor, while pressing on what it means to be “authentic,” “traditional,” and “Native.”
“This is a real touchy area in Native American art because there’s always an argument about the traditional arts, like basket-weaving, as opposed to contemporary art,” artist Chris Pappan says. “That’s because people have such a narrow idea about what Native art is, whereas in our own little bubble, it’s more like a dialogue, a conversation.” Pappan’s own work riffs on Ledger art, a form of record-keeping that emerged in prisons where “hostile natives” were held. Growing up in Santa Fe, he says he avoided the Market for years, fearing it would pigeonhole him as an “Indian Market artist.” Now, Pappan says he embraces the market’s diversity, and that by tweaking historical forms, he has found his voice.
He is in good company at the fair. The dance group New Tribe, formerly known as the Southwest Savages (they changed it when it proved too controversial), draws from hip-hop and hoop dancing, while the patterns on Lisa Hageman Yahgulanaas’s woven textiles and regalia have a distinctively modernist edge. John Paul Rangel, SWAIA’s marketing director, Hageman Yahgulanaas’s husband, and a Ph.D. in indigenous aesthetics, says many of these artists are reinterpreting “pre-contact” forms through a lens of urban street culture. “There’s a lot of simultaneity going on,” Rangel says. “There always has been. It may not be apparent to you, but it is to us.”
At a market that draws as many as a 175,000 visitors, and nets millions of dollars for the state, this question of simultaneity can make or break a career. “I know artists who make an annual salary in two days at the market,” White Hawk says, adding that many are potters with collectors that have a vested interest in the continuity of their tradition. She admits that these artists have a stake in the fair retaining its original focus, but says most of the resistance to its evolving identity comes from its non-Native visitors. “You see those people going from booth to booth, trying to figure out how my imagery computes in their mind frame with Indian Art. Often it doesn’t make sense because it’s not what they expect, and that’s pretty symptomatic in terms of understanding contemporary Native communities.” She adds, “A lot of non-Native visitors come thinking Indian art is beads and feathers and all things stuck in the 1800s. They don’t realize the tribal diversity that exists across the nation.”
This summer that diversity is on view at the Denver Art Museum, where visitors can see Jeff Gibson doing post-production work on a video project, aptly titled One Becomes the Other, as well as in Santa Fe, where Bert Benally and Ai Weiwei recently collaborated on an installation called, Pull of the Moon. And then there is the Indigenous Fine Art Market, which was founded this spring by an all-Native staff. It opens on August 20 with performances by hip-hop duo Santiago X and Chacon, who will be creating a site-specific mural that, in her description, challenges the logic of European thought. Despite its controversial beginnings—many of IFAM staff members broke publicly from SWAIA—White Hawk says she’s excited to see another platform out there, created by Native voices: “We have a lot of work to do to get ourselves seen and heard in the mainstream art world.”
The Santa Fe Indian Market runs this year from August 18 through 24, 2014. More information at www.swaia.org.