Native American artists take back culture of their art

"It's like my living room, only neater." Native American artist Kim Shuck brings her creative process to the de Young
Photo by Caitlin Donohue

“Museums are, historically, piles of loots with a roof on them,” says Kim Shuck as she carefully beads a black raven onto the back of a pow-wow vest in the de Young's Kimball education gallery. I go to touch her intricate stitching, then draw my hand back. Shuck is telling me about her work's cultural significance, the struggle of the Native American community to coexist with the white art world. Am I really about to manhandle her sacred creation? “I appreciate your impulse to touch, and then not be sure if you can,” she says laughing, as she grants her approval for me to poke and prod the curving lines of tiny beads. Moments like these are what her current project's about – exposing folks to indigenous art, and teaching them the limits and guidelines to their interaction with it.

Shuck co founded the museum's Native American Programs Board five years ago to address concerns from the indigenous community that their tribes' artifacts were being treated disrespectfully by the museum. The board's efforts have birthed a change in the way the de Young curates its Native American art – a change embodied in Shuck and artist Michael Horses' living art display, which includes studio space so that visitors can interact with the artists as they continue to create. The work is been shown at the museum through Sun/27 and on Fri/25 they'll celebrate the space with a closing reception. 

Horse and Shuck's work, steeped in traditional mediums, is nonetheless an expression of Native Americans in the modern world. Horse is an imposing man who has been an activist since the days of the 1969-'71 Alcatraz occupation, owns Gathering Tribes gallery with his wife, and is a multi generation jewelery maker. He also played Deputy Hawk on TV's “Twin Peaks.” His contribution to the exhibit, besides his silver kachina doll rings, is ledger art – traditional form paintings that he etches onto documents from the early 21st century days of Native American resettlement. In one farm, cavalry dashes across the canvas blasting horseback native warriors with their muskets. It is painted onto a general store's ledger from the late 1800s, a clear comment on the presence of commerce in the tribe's land. The artist periodically invite dancer friends to bless the space, creating kind of a party atmosphere. "We have people stop by here all the time, just to come see us," says Shuck.

"Being an indigenous person is a constant state of explanation," says artist Michael Horse of his modern day take on Native American resettlement. Photo by Caitlin Donohue

The basic problem their advisory board was formed to address, as Shuck and Horse expressed to me, is that many of the cultural objects that museums display as static art pieces were never meant to sit under a glass case. Native American art can be very place specific. Some accessories and apparel was painstakingly hand made to be used in special ceremonies, and not viewed by the public at all. To show a piece correctly, one must be aware of its nuances, and respectful of the object's spirit and purpose. Moreover, the way Western institutions have “gathered” items in the past is a cause of great concern. “I don't go into some of the cemeteries here and dig up Grandma because I want to see what pearls she wore,” Horse tells me.

But the de Young, to its credit, is one institution that is examining its collection, and seeking ways to collaborate with community members on its presentation and treatment. After the museum fielded a series of complaints from Native American activists on the way their heritage was being displayed, de Young director of public programs Renee Baldocchi contacted Shuck, an artist-professor that was active in SF State's pioneering Native Studies program, for help. Understandably, Shuck was initially a bit distrustful of the olive branch the museum was extending.

“She wouldn't even look me in the eye when we shook hands,” Baldocchi tells me. “But something happened, and a relationship was formed.” Shuck was struggling with anger about how her culture's art had been treated in the past, but saw a benefit in working on change in the future. “Do we release [this art], ignore it, pretend it doesn't exist? Some people do that, but it's not my modality,” she tells me. A challenging partnership was born.

When the temporary storage of an important collection of baskets was proposed, museum officials worked with the activists and elders on the advisory board to make sure the vessels were given an appropriate send off. Traditional musicians played, and a microphone was provided so that those from the indigenous community could share their feelings on the baskets' departure. “This museum is on the right pathway,” Horse tells me. “They're small steps, but they're sincere,” Baldocchi says.

On the whole, it reflects the museum's realization that the way art from different cultures has been handled in the past was no longer good enough. “Instead of looking for that scholar voice, we were looking for people with a connection [to the art],” says Baldocchi, who has arranged similar efforts to the Native American board for other exhibits, such as their recent showing of crafts from Oceania. 

Even the dadas have had their day. For a surrealism show in 2000, the de Young summoned another marginalized SF community to inform them of the arts portent; the city's dadaists. Like the Native American advisory board, they were locals who could shape their city museum's look at their culture. The Bay area's diversity is one more reason why the de Young can provide such diverse art coverage, says Baldocchi. “SF is an amazing resource right in our own backyard.”

June Artist in Residence: Kim Shuck and Michael Horse

through Sun/27, free

Kimball Education Gallery

de Young Museum

50 Hagiwara Tea Garden, SF

(415) 750-3600


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