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Native American Artists Honor & Provide A Contemporary Take On Their Traditions

Native American art has not often been characterized as such by the non-Native American world. From intricately-beaded clothing to ceramics to jewelry, the artworks that native peoples here created, and continue to create, are often found in the craft or perhaps the folk art areas of museum exhibitions. 

"Not so fast," says Karen Ann Hoffman. She is Oneida and a renowned Iroquois raised bead worker who was brought up in Milwaukee and now lives and works in Stevens Point. She curated the "Native Fiber" exhibit currently on view at Wisconsin Museum of Quilts and Fiber Arts in Cedarburg. The show features contemporary work by more than 30 Native American artists representing 20 Tribal Nations from around the Great Lakes. 

Lake Effect's Bonnie North toured the exhibit with Hoffman, discussing why Native American art is just as culturally and artistically significant as any Dutch master painting.

Credit Bonnie North
(Left) Terri Hom, Old-Style Ojibwe Birch Bark Quill Basket, 2018; porcupine quills, birch bark, sinew. Courtesy of the artist. (Right) Pat Kruse, Rice Keeper, 2018; birch bark and sinew.

"Native art, for far too long, has suffered from the perception that it is a trinket, that it's less than, that it does not have the same value — monetary or artistic value," Hoffman says.

She continues, "Our art is fine art. You can look at our art through the lens of fine art criticism the same way you can take a look at the Dutch masters."  

In addition to highlighting the significance of native art finally receiving the recognition and spotlight it deserves, it's also an opportunity for non-natives to appreciate the artwork of native people.

"What I think is exciting about this exhibit is we get a chance as native artists to show what's integral to us. What we know, what we love, what we've been doing for a millennia and share it with folks who are not necessarily familiar with the way we use these materials," Hoffman says.

Credit Bonnie North
Pat Kruse, Birch Bark Panel, 2018; birch bark and sinew.

Of course, though, there is both much meaning in the fact that the exhibit exists and also much meaning in each of the pieces that are on exhibit.

"It's very interesting to me that the same simple materials — steel needle, a little bit of cotton thread, a glass bead — can be used to express really distinctive cultural styles," Hoffman says about her Iroquois raised beadwork.

Although each artist and each artwork has a distinctive story, Hoffman says each piece has an intrinsic connection relating to predominant Native American culture.

"Art, ecology, science, beauty, statements, commitments — that fusion is the religion that goes through all of these pieces," Hoffman says.

The "Native Fiber" exhibit will be at the Museum of Quilts and Fiber Arts in Cedarburg, Wis. until April 28.

Bonnie North
Bonnie joined WUWM in March 2006 as the Arts Producer of the locally produced weekday magazine program Lake Effect.