Museum of Contemporary Native Arts

Norman Akers

Top: Okesa, 2006; bottom left: Power Chords to the Past, 2004; bottom right: Between Morning and Noon, 2001 (click any image to view larger images)

By Shanna Ketchum-Heap of Birds

Osage artist Norman Akers creates mythic landscapes that merge tribal cosmology with personal experience in an ever-evolving visual field. This vision is expressed using various abstract and representational symbols that relate the Osage creation story and the life cycles of humans and animals. By drawing on the transformative elements central to these forces, Akers presents a world where seemingly random objects converge on an open landscape.

The intersections of tribal and modern life are organized in Akers’s work through a layering of contrasting cultural images and symbols from the natural and material worlds. Akers has stated, “the use of different painting styles and layering of images in my work becomes a metaphor for the shifts in my own conscious thoughts and emotions … to suggest that there are no clear boundaries between my culture’s past and present beliefs.”1 As objects for exploration, his compositions exhibit a world in flux where spatial and temporal boundaries are alternately negotiated and transcended. This painterly technique assists Akers in “defin[ing] [his] place in a complex and ever-changing world.”2 In this manner, Akers creates a space where borders are easily transgressed and new territories imagined.

In Okesa (2006), Akers begins with a clear definition of place by depicting a painted earth and sky reminiscent of the rolling hills, tall prairie grass and horizon line he observed while growing up in the rural, Osage community of Oklahoma. A realistic map of northern Oklahoma designates the reservation area as commonly demarcated outlined borders. This place marker merges easily in and out of a background of similar value to create a surrealistic landscape seemingly located outside space and time. The heavy, dark-colored primordial oak tree, upon which the first people descended to this world, floats ambiguously in the center of the composition with trunk and limbs exposed. Acorns representing rebirth are juxtaposed with tops, a lunchbox, forked roads and a satellite dish pointing skyward at the sun and stars. Firmly rooted on the earth, however, is the figure of an elk, which the Osage credit with creating the present environment where humans and animals exist in the physical world. The entire composition is anchored by the themes of creation and migration conveyed through fragmented images layered on top of one another.

Akers has stated that the use of “disparate images metaphorically speak[s] about the displacement, survival, and coexistence of values for Native peoples today.”3 These formal elements and stylistic choices are also realized in monoprints that the artist has worked on intermittently since 2001. In this series, “visual images of maps, tops, lunchboxes, birds, and turtles serve as signifiers for entrenched cultural histories and personal beliefs.”4 The medium of printmaking has influenced Akers’s paintings because of the integration of flat images superimposed on the landscapes as Xerox transfers. These innovations are focused more on communicating personal and cultural perspectives about place than on relating a sense of illusion. Akers received his MFA training in studio art from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana and is currently professor of painting at the University of Kansas School of the Arts.

Additional Resources compiled by students in Contemporary Native American Art History course at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Spring 2013

[1] Norman Akers, “Artist’s Statement,” Native Views: Influences of Modern Culture (Ann Arbor, MI: Art Train USA, 2004), 35

[2] Ibid.

[3] Norman Akers, “Artist’s Statement,” Unlimited Boundaries: The Dichotomy of Place in Contemporary Native American Art (Albuquerque, NM: Albuquerque Museum of Art and History, 2007), 10.

[4] Norman Akers, “Artist’s Statement,” Here & There: Seeing New Ground (Albuquerque, NM: 516 ARTS, 2009), 7.


Web-Based Resources

The University of Kansas School of the Arts: Visual Art: Norman Akers. Web. <

Artspace: Norman Akers. Web. New York 2012. <

U.S. Department of State. “Cultural Exchange Through The Visual Arts: Norman Akers.” Web. <>

Paget, Mindie. “Lawrence Journal-World: Painter Pushes Boundaries of Native Art.” September 6, 2007. Web. 

Selected Bibliography

Fauntleroy, Gussie. “Museum Spotlight: The Birth and Blooming of the National Collection of Contemporary Indian Art.” Focus. 2003.

Goshen College Art Gallery. Contemporary Native American Prints. Goshen: Goshen College Art Gallery, 1995.

Matuz, Roger. St. James Guide to Native North American Artists. Detroit: St. James Press, 1998.