The amount of Indigenous art collected and properly contextualized by cultural institutions remains slim. Meanwhile, that art is undervalued and overlooked by inequitable market dynamics. However, public engagement on the subject is increasing, thanks to the handful of specialized curators of Indigenous art at major museums and the networks of artists and independent curators outside those institutions.
Below are some of the organizations and artists who, in 2022, forged a stage for Indigenous art at museums, education systems, and international exhibitions.
A Landmark Indigenous Lending Collection
The Forge Project, a Native-led, multi-faceted initiative, is headquartered in two sleek structures nestled high in the Hudson Valley, also known as the unceded and ancestral homelands of the Muh-he-con-ne-ok. It’s an outstanding panorama in the summer, with the lush Catskills unfurling across the horizon. Now, in the cold, the tree line is bare, and by February, Forge’s lawn will freeze. Although it may not happen this spring or the next, the ice will eventually melt to reveal the new, old landscape—the Indigenous flora that was uprooted by settlers centuries ago. The Forge team, led by its executive director and chief curator, Candice Hopkins, has plans to replant its 38-acre property, restoring a sliver of the vista to its intended glory.
Restoration work of all sorts are underway at Forge, the brainchild of Zach Feuer, a former New York City art dealer, and collector and philanthropist, Becky Gochman. Founded in 2021, it is one of the few Native-led cultural initiatives in the United States, including the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation in Portland, with a physical location.
The significance of an address exceeds easy explanation: at Forge, visitors gather to revitalize Indigenous histories through art, music, education, medicine, and agriculture; the initiative’s dimensions expand, seemingly, to meet the needs of its community. Fellows and artists-in-residence live and work in the airy metal-clad main house and snug, wood-lined Y-shaped guest house, both designed by Ai Weiwei. The property, which includes a small gallery, is decorated at any time with 30 or so works from Forge’s lending collection of Indigenous art.
Everything about Forge feels historic, but the lending collection is the first of its kind, anywhere. And it’s headed everywhere, hopefully. It counts around 200 artworks by more than 50 Native American, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, First Nation, Métis, and Inuit artists, almost all of whom are still alive. Many of the preeminent contemporary Indigenous artists are represented, such as Sky Hopinka (Ho-Chunk Nation/Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians), Jeffrey Gibson (Choctaw/Cherokee), and Edgar Heap of Birds (Cheyenne and Arapaho Nation). There is no discernible hierarchy of artists or medium; the focus, like with any pedagogical resource, is to fill in chronological and thematic gaps.
The current collection is already exceptional, including an archival print of Wendy Red Star’s (Apsáalooke [Crow]) tragic pastiche Last Thanks (2006), a wily assemblage by Natalie Ball (Modoc and Klamath), and a grand, grave painting by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, a Sqelix’u (Salish) member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation. That latter artist’s work is dubbed War Horse in Babylon (2005), and its titular steed stands in the ruins of its riders.
The stewardship of this collection is no small undertaking, but the team is clearly fueled by an inexhaustible enthusiasm—love, even—for the artwork. This project is exponentially increasing the circulation of its collection worldwide, seeping the presence of Indigenous art into the institutional consciousness, and correcting the inequities of the market. By December 2022, the organization said it had received loan requests from the Louvre, the Baffler Art Museum, and the Brooklyn Museum, as well as the Venice Biennale, the Front Triennial in Cleveland, and beyond.
Bard College Establishes the First Center for Indigenous Studies
In September, Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, home to the Center for Curatorial Studies, made a major investment in the study of Native American and Indigenous art history. The school has announced a “transformational” endowment gift from the Gochman Family Foundation—as in Becky Gochman—that will help establish a Center for Indigenous Studies. The gift also supported the appointment of the school’s first Indigenous Curatorial Fellow.
Additionally, Bard’s American Studies Program will be renamed American and Indigenous Studies to “more fully reflect continental history,” according to the school.
Bard has partnered with Forge Project for the transition, with Forge’s executive director and chief curator, Candice Hopkins, tapped to help develop dedicated programming and select visiting scholars and acquisitions for the school’s library and archives. Hopkins will also curate an exhibition in 2023 to inaugurate the gift and teach one course per year that utilizes Forge’s growing collection to examine—and shape—the evolving narrative of Indigenous visual history.
Bard, which was one of the first programs of its kind to offer curatorial training, also promised to renew efforts to reduce barriers between higher education and Indigenous students. From now on, undergraduate and graduate scholarship funds will cover tuition, fees, materials, and the cost of living for candidates.
Additionally, Bard will establish a chair for a distinguished scholar in the new Indigenous Studies center. These initiatives, developed in partnership with Forge Project, will be supported by a $50 million endowment created by the $25 million gift from the Gochman Family Foundation and an additional $25 million matching commitment from George Soros and the Open Society Foundations as part of Bard College’s endowment drive.
Sámi Artists Represent the Nordic Pavilion in Venice
The Nordic Pavilion, which represents the countries of Norway, Sweden, and Finland, made history at the 2022 edition of the Venice Biennale, the world’s most important contemporary art exhibition, when it ceded its stage to three Sámi artists: Pauliina Feodoroff, Máret Ánne Sara, and Anders Sunna.
Their presentation marked the first time that an all-Sámi group of artists represented Scandinavia. The Sámi, Europe’s only Indigenous people, number roughly 100,000 across northern Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Russia’s Kola Peninsula (where they area called Sápmi), and have suffered colonization, land dispossession, and, more recently, the accelerated impact of the climate crisis. The Nordic Sámi have their own parliaments and have had their rights recognized by some Scandinavian states, however racism against them endures and they do not have full agency over their own land.
Each of the three Sámi artists brought these issues to Venice by different means.
Pauliina Feodoroff staged a performance project that incorporated haunting photographic portraits of the imperiled Arctic landscape. Sunna, an artist and reindeer herder from the Swedish region of Sápmi, presented a monumental painting installation narrating the 50-year legal battle between his family and the Swedish state around reindeer herding rights. Sara, who hails from Norwegian Sápmi, has also clashed with authorities over reindeer herding. She brought to Venice a series of sculptures made from reindeer stomachs, a lamentation of her people’s oppression—and celebration of their culture, as reindeer are central to Sámi folklore and philosophy.
Katya García-Antón, commissioner and co-curator of the pavilion, told ARTnews that their presentation is “a historic moment of decolonization,” adding, “It’s also a very strong story about the ongoing struggles that Sámi society is experiencing today.”
The representation of Indigenous artists has increased at Venice Biennale, though there is more room to grow. Among the artists and groups to recently helm their countries’ pavilions in past editions are the Isuma collective for Canada, Lisa Reihana (Maori) for New Zealand, and Richard Bell (Kamilaroi) for Australia.
Indigenous Australian Art Gets its Due in a Major Institution
Australia’s recognition of its Indigenous artists has, historically, been haphazard. But the opening of the Sydney Modern, the new building of the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, this month signaled a new era for representation in one of the country’s most prestigious institutions. The gallery’s sole permanent exhibition space now houses the Yiribana Gallery, which exclusively showcases art by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It’s no shoebox, either: the new Sydney Modern boasts 75,000 square feet of exhibition space, including the new temporary exhibition spaces, nearly double that of the Art Gallery of NSW’s exhibition space.
To celebrate its opening, the gallery commissioned large-scale works by nine artists, including three Aboriginal Australians: Lorraine Connelly-Northey, whose work addresses themes of cultural memory, refashioned found metals into her Waradgerie people’s traditional narrbong-galang, or woven bags; Karla Dickens, of the Waradgerie people, crafted a 6.5-foot-long mixed-media panel made of glass and various metals that depicts hooded, silenced figures; and Wiradyuri and Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones will unveil a new work in 2023 on a land bridge that will incorporate cool burnings, a traditional fire management practice.
With projects like these, Indigenous Australian art is “becoming completely embedded within all conversations about Australian art,” Cara Pinchbeck, a senior curator at the museum, told ARTnews. “It now holds a central place.”