Museum of Contemporary Native Arts

Encoded Knowledge: Memory and Objects in Contemporary Native American Arts

Abstract of a Manifestations Essay by Sherry Farrell Racette

Traditional media, traditional form and the narrative power of objects constitute a critical linkage between contemporary and historic indigenous arts.  This merger of new and ancient media and practices is a deeply historic process through which generations of artists have physically manipulated materials and ideas from widely disparate sources into new forms.  Marcus Amerman’s beadwork portraits and Sarah Sense’s reworking of Chitimacha basketry patterns revitalize tradition, while Marie Watt’s blankets, Alan Michelson’s wampum belt and Erica Lord’s prayer ties manipulate the narrative power of deeply significant objects.

Artists draw from the memory and knowledge encoded within objects.  Some objects serve to reclaim knowledge, recount histories, evoke emotion and stir memory.  Whether occupying three-dimensional space or represented as images in film, video or paintings, they retain their narrative power.  Reconfigured within contemporary arts practices these meanings are complicated and multiplied. 

Indigenous art history and art criticism must resist the notion that contemporary arts practices represent a rupture, disassociated from historic and traditional forms. Rather, many artists offer deep continuity. For an indigenous viewer, the presentation of a familiar technique or significant object triggers a shock of recognition.  The artist asks us to honor, recall and recount, but also pushes us to consider new interpretations.  For other viewers, who have come to rely on their own foundation of Judeo-Christian beliefs and western knowledge systems, they are disruptive and enigmatic.  This ability to initiate multi-layered discourse in multiple directions is a fundamental reason why contemporary indigenous art has the potential to make an important intellectual contribution to the broader field of contemporary art.