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Khoiye-Goo Mah, 2004: Converse All-Stars shoes with beads

Teri Greeves's Khoiye-Goo Mah combines glass beads with commercially manufactured tennis shoes.

Art without reservation

Weisman exhibit showcases diverse forms of Native art

By Kristi Goldade

November 30, 2007

When you enter the Weisman Art Museum's latest exhibit, "Changing Hands: Art Without Reservation," the first thing you notice is a pair of intricately beaded shoes. The shoes aren't moccasins, or even leather boots--they are a pair of Converse All-Stars, much like the sneakers worn by the museum's student security guard, though his are slightly less adorned.

"Indian beadwork comes from a long tradition," says artist Terri Greeves of her beaded All-Stars. "Techniques and ideas that came before me are synthesized into a beadwork informed by living in today's world."

The decorated shoes are just one example of how this exhibit, featuring Native American artists from west of the Mississippi, blends traditional materials or styles with the contemporary to create a new kind of showcase of Native art. One memorable wall features a drug store Indian, whose face has been removed and replaced with a television playing Western movies.

"This exhibit insists that Natives are here," says Jane Blocker, associate professor of art history. "They are not idealized caricatures from the past."

Conventionally, art from indigenous peoples is arranged by region or function. Tools from a certain tribe would fill one cabinet, and earthen cookware would line another. "Changing Hands" challenges these practices by instead organizing the pieces according to conceptual categories: Beyond Function, The Human Condition, Material Evidence, and Nature as Subject.

The purpose of the categories is dual. First, because the museum does not arrange the art by tribe or utility, it defies a traditional ethnographic approach to Native work. Secondly, the arrangement serves to unite this massive and diverse collection--150 works by 130 artists--under like visual umbrellas. It is easy to see how Maxx Steven's paper sculpture, Memory Prom Dress, relates to Puni Kukahiko's chocolate Lovely Hula Hands, and it has nothing to do with their tribes.

Another prevalent theme is a sharp critique of the west. Artist James Luna satirizes America's fascination and romanticization of Native Americans in his performance piece, Take a picture with a real Indian.

In the video, he poses for pictures dressed in jeans and a shirt, then a loincloth, and finally in mock traditional garb. Museum-goers chose which "real Indian" they wanted to pose with, raising the question of what it means to be an authentic Native today.

"Changing Hands: Art Without Reservation" runs October 26 through January 13, 2008. Museum hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; and Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The exhibit is free and open to the public.