Unbound: Narrative Art of the Plains at the NMAI

Man’s shirt (back), c. 1840, at the National Museum of the American Indian exhibit ‘Unbound: Narrative Art of the Plains.’ PHOTO: KATHERINE FOGDEN/NMAI
Man’s shirt (back), c. 1840, at the National Museum of the American Indian exhibit ‘Unbound: Narrative Art of the Plains.’ PHOTO: KATHERINE FOGDEN/NMAI

While contemporary work, in general, is being widely collected and exhibited, the scramble for contemporary Native American art holds exciting opportunities for museum exhibition. As one of the country’s best Native American art collections, the NMAI has the opportunity to contextualize contemporary work in a way few others can. The NMAI opened, Unbound: Narrative Art of the Plains in January at their New York branch.

The exhibit is largely an exploration of identity. The first half of the exhibit boldly asserts a Plains Indian identity with large and expressive works that recount military victories and poke fun at the white settlers and US military campaigns. An exquisite combination of quillwork and beading on deerskin, it shows a warrior’s victories using figural and symbolic images. Created in 1840, it is one of the shows earliest works.

The exhibit then moves into the reservation years and the narrative turns to an exploration of a plains identity which is influenced by the white art market. The works in this section include new materials such as muslin as well as a shift in the visual content: military scenes are replaced by family scenes. A request by white art dealers who though buyers were not interested in viewing scenes of Native military victory but rather intimate family scenes. Native artists responded to the new market with images of mothers with their children and scene around the fire.

The exhibit then again finishes on an expressive and bold note. The exhibit includes 57 new acquisitions by contemporary plains artists. These acquisitions show the museum’s commitment to contemporary Native art. These works respond to the older works by negotiating earlier native identities.

Conductors of Our Own Destiny,’ 2013, by Dallin Maybee. PHOTO: ERNEST AMOROSO/NMAI
Conductors of Our Own Destiny,’ 2013, by Dallin Maybee. PHOTO: ERNEST AMOROSO/NMAI

The early pieces do an excellent job of showing the sly and comedic aspects of ledger art which depicted the enemy (Often white settlers and military personnel) comedically. The contemporary work picks this up, especially with Chris Pappan, who’s work reverts the Curtis gaze to investigate and negotiate the multiple identities native individual’s experience today. In the last room, the artist, Dallin Maybee confronts the lack of mainstream native representation by transforming beloved mainstream characters into a native identity. Maurice Sendak’s, Where the Wild Things Are is transformed into “Where the Natives Are” with the characters shown in plains military regalia and another work depicts the cartoon Spongebob riding a seahorse with a plains war bonnet.

Dallin Maybee (Northern Arapaho/Seneca) at the National Museum of the American Indian exhibit ‘Unbound: Narrative Art of the Plains
Dallin Maybee (Northern Arapaho/Seneca) at the National Museum of the American Indian exhibit ‘Unbound: Narrative Art of the Plains

The show is sharp and inclusive, featuring artists from different generations and genders in a focused exploration of identity. Unbound Leaves the visitor with the idea that each artist’s heritage has shaped their works, but will also continue to shape their future.