Museum of Contemporary Native Arts

Owning the Image: Indigenous Arts since 1992

Abstract of a Manifestations Essay by Mario A. Caro

Writing about contemporary Indigenous arts has often been out of step with mainstream discourses on contemporary art. It either places work by Indigenous artists as lagging behind or, alternately, as anticipating trends of the mainstream art world. At times Indigenous work has appeared as exceptional, as the authentic voice of otherness that helps to define the incoherent Western unconscious of avant-garde art.[1] At other times, claims have been made for Native art, and its contextualization within fields such art history and anthropology, as anticipating the theory and criticism eventually developed to discuss contemporary Western art.[2] While it is difficult to comprehensively assess writings on Native art—these come from many disciplines and are disseminated in numerous and radically different venues—there has been a sharp increase in the number of writings dealing with the subject, at least since 1992. And many of these have been produced by scholars who are Native and often also artists. 

 1992 is not an arbitrary year. It marked the quincentenary of the arrival of Columbus to the Western hemisphere, and became the occasion for many celebrations, manifested in every conceivable form. This was also an occasion for the production of a great number of Native arts exhibitions that addressed the historical inaccuracies and omissions of Western accounts of Native history since the encounter. This abundance of work also generated scholarship that addressed the unique aesthetic legacies of Native artistic traditions and innovations. In many ways, the years immediately following 1992 marked a radical reconfiguration of the field of Native arts. This essay is a brief overview of the last twenty years of scholarship on Native American arts.

[1] In his often reprinted essay, “Artist as Ethnographer,” Hal Foster cites James Luna and Jimmie Durham as examples of artists who play the authenticity game in order to highlight its duplicity. However, the irony is that this implies that for Foster Native artists are the only ones authentic enough to do so
[2] In “Anthropologies and Histories of Art: A View from the Terrain of Native North American Art History,” Janet Berlo has touted her subfield of Native art history as “substantially anticipat[ing] some of the transdisciplinary practices of visual and cultural studies.”