Students in my ART 4763: Native American Art and Material Culture course regularly make use of interviews in the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program’s Oklahoma Native Artists Project. Last fall, I asked students to bring together interviews from the Project with interviews or artists’ statements published elsewhere, in thematic discussions that explore the range and diversity of Native artists’ experiences. Over the next few weeks, in conjunction with the Oklahoma Arts Conference, where Project director Julie Pearson-Little Thunder and I will be presenting about uses of Project interviews, I’ll be sharing some of the students’ papers on the blog. I begin with Bridget Dixon’s exploration of collaboration in the Native art community.
Collaboration can be extremely beneficial to most working artists, including Native American artists, who often collaborate with other artists within their own tribe as well as those who have no affiliation with any tribe. Just as with any profession, connections and relationships are everything. Collaboration has the potential to drastically increase the production and the profits of Native American artists. Their collaborations include those with family, organizations, and even established brands.
Shan Goshorn, an Eastern Band Cherokee artist, is a member of “The Makers,” a collection of Native American artists who create concept art in a variety of media. According to Goshorn, the group believes that “as Indian people, it’s not about making artwork to hang on the wall, it’s about the process of making it and the ceremony involved in making it.” Traditionally, craft within the tribe was a communal affair. Artists would share stories with one another as they worked, and the resulting artworks sometimes evoked the owner of the piece to tell a story. Goshorn also remembers collaborating with an artist from Cherokee, North Carolina. He would carve abstract forms from wood, then Goshorn painted them and added beads.
Bobby Martin, a Muscogee Creek printmaker, talks about his collaborative show with Tony Tiger, a Native American painter. He explains that working with Tiger became a sort of “crossroads” at which he decided to begin making art for the second time. Martin’s situation demonstrates the power of collaboration as it relates to an artistic career.
Bill Glass Jr.’s collaboration with his son has had similar results. The ceramist explains that the partnership enabled him to take his artwork to the next level by creating larger works, for which his son created the inner framework. In an unpredictable art market, collaboration often allows artists to explore new ideas or techniques that they have not yet had a chance to pursue.
Native American artists sometimes collaborate with organizations and companies alike. According to Goshorn, “any corporate installation…is a collaboration.” She was once invited to work with a casino associated with the Tunica Biloxi tribe. The casino flew her from her home so that she could find inspiration in old pottery retrieved from a mound known to belong to the tribe.
Collaboration can be a huge source of knowledge for Native American artists, especially in situations such as this. Native American artists who become employed as creatives within companies collaborate with other people all the time. Bobby Martin worked as the Graphic Design Coordinator at Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma. According to the American Institute of Graphic Arts, a graphic design coordinator is expected to work with the graphic designers and marketing team to produce all print, web, television, or radio advertising for a company. Employed under this title, Martin would have collaborated as a part of his everyday routine.
Collaboration has not always been a pleasant event for Native American artists. The “collaboration” that took place between artists and Europeans looking to collect or “preserve” Native American culture during the late 19th century and the early 20th century was usually in the best interest of the white individual. However, in the face of the ongoing cultural appropriation of Native America, much groundbreaking and exciting collaboration between fashion designers and Native American artists is happening today.
In 2013, famous fashion designer Paul Frank confirmed that he would be collaborating with four Native American artists to develop new accessories. According to the press release, shared on the Native Appropriations blog, “[t]he collection, which will include a tote bag, hand-beaded sunglasses, graphic tees and Hama bead jewelry is an expression of the Native American culture and a way for the artists to integrate their perspective and tribal identity into fashion.”
Bethany Yellowtail, owner of the brand b.YELLOWTAIL, is combating cultural appropriation in her own way. Yellowtail outlines her goals for the collection, “The Mighty Few,” saying, “I simply want to carve out a space where an authentic voice and an authentic representation of Native America exists and thrives.” While working with other Native American artists, she strives to display Native Americans in a modern fashion instead of in a stereotypical way. She collaborated with an artist named John Pepion, who created the ledger drawing design used on a scarf featured in the Native American inspired collection.
Although collaboration between Native artists and Euro-Americans sometimes recalls a questionable past, today it is a prime source of inspiration among Native American artists everywhere. Artists such as Shan Goshorn, Bobby Martin, and Bill Glass Jr. have all benefited greatly from collaboration in some way. Cultural appropriation plagues the fashion industry; however, a few designers such as Paul Frank and Bethany Yellowtail, have decided to take a stance against this kind of activity. With this momentum, a bright future is in store for Native American artists and the culture as a whole.
Online registration for the Oklahoma Arts Conference ends on October 14! Julie and I would love to see you at our panel, “Native Artists Speak: Oral History as a Resource for Education and Advocacy in the Arts,” on Wednesday, October 26, 2016, 3:15-4:45pm.