Native American artists are revisiting their traditions

Jeremy Dennis’ Beach Access series reveals the Shinnecock Nation’s inability to freely access their ancestral beaches in Southampton, New York. (Courtesy of Jeremy Dennis)

The artistic traditions of Native American peoples, like all peoples of the world, developed from pragmatic or spiritual roots. Native American artists still practice traditional tribal arts such as jewelry, pottery, weaving, and basketry or totem carving, while exploring new media and creating diverse works that challenge accepted ideas about their culture.

Decorative pottery, intricately patterned quilts, and Native American woven baskets are well known to art lovers. Native American breastplates, made of wood, bone, and leather and decorated with symbols for added protection, can also be admired in many museums.

There are officially 570 Native American tribes in the United States. Each of them is distinguished by its own language and culture, producing artists whose works deviate from their ancestral traditions. Here’s a brief introduction to five artists whose work allows us to better understand the different types of Native American art:

Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907)

Statue of deceased woman reclining in an ornate chair (Smithsonian American Art Museum)
“The Death of Cleopatra” by Edmonia Lewis (Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Famous artist Edmonia Lewis, born free in New York State, is the first professional sculptor of African-American and Native American (Chippewa) descent in the United States. After completing his art studies in America, Lewis moved to Rome, where he joined the Society of American Artists.

Her neoclassical sculptures, according to the National Women’s History Museum (NWHM), depict “indigenous women and peoples living with dignity and beauty.” Among his major works death of cleopatra (a monumental sculpture that took four years to create), Hagar (representing the biblical character Hagar, slave of Abraham’s wife Sarah) and a series inspired by the poem The Song of Hiawatha By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

His works are exhibited in several American museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Oscar Howe (1915-1983)

By Oscar Howe
1967 painting “Fighting the Bulls” by Oscar Owen (courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian)

Oscar HoweThe Dakota Yanktonai artist from South Dakota depicted Native American traditions with a modernist aesthetic. Born on the Crow Creek Reservation, he served in the military during World War II before graduating from the University of Oklahoma. His paintings are distinguished by their vivid colors, geometry and dynamic movement of lines. Howe was a driving force in Native American fine art, challenging concepts of Indian art and paving the way for contemporary artists.

His works represent the daily life of his tribal culture. They preserve traditional values. Art critic Jonathan Keats, in an article for the magazine Forbesnotes that “Howe’s straight lines represented truth, and circles represented harmonious unity.”

In addition, Oscar Howe, whose paintings have been exhibited around the world, has won numerous awards throughout his career.

Jerome Tiger (1941-1967)

Two Jerome Tiger paintings side by side by Native Americans (courtesy of Molly Babcock-Marcus and Dana Tiger/
“Peace Proposal” (left) and “Journey Over the Moon” by Jerome Tiger (courtesy of Molly Babcock-Marcus and Dana Tiger/

Muskogee Creek-Seminole Painter Jerome the Tiger Between 1962 and his death in 1967, he painted hundreds of paintings. Self-taught and prolific, this artist from Oklahoma saw the beginning of his career when, on the advice of a friend, he sent canvases to the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa. “His talent was immediately recognized,” said the Oklahoma Historical Society.

Her work won first prize at the National Native American Art Exhibition in Oakland, California. His paintings of Native American subjects combine “spiritual vision, human understanding, and technical virtuosity,” sums up the Mid-America Pan-Indian Center in Wichita, Kansas.

His paintings in oil, watercolor, tempera, casein, pencil and ink are exhibited in American museums, including the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. The US State Department’s Art in Embassies* program presents his works abroad.

Jeremy Dennis (born 1990)

Native American woman in traditional dress posing for a photo on the beach (Courtesy of Jeremy Dennis)
Jeremy Dennis’ The Shinnecock Portrait Project combines traditional photographic portraiture, Google Street View and audio interviews. (Courtesy of Jeremy Dennis)

Jeremy Dennis is a contemporary fine art photographer and member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation in Southampton, NY. “My photography explores indigenous identity, cultural assimilation and the ancient traditional practices of my tribe,” he explains.

He creates cinematic images (through digital photography) that challenge and disrupt harmful stereotypes such as the depictions of the “noble savage” conveyed by cinema. Jeremy Dennis emphasizes that it is important to “offer a complex and believable representation of Aboriginal peoples”.

The artist emphasizes that Americans are “anchored to our land with our ancestral histories.” “The local mythology that influences my photography allows me to get to know the spirit of my ancestors, including the value they placed on our sacred lands. By furnishing and arranging models to illustrate these myths, I am trying to continue the storytelling tradition of my ancestors and demonstrate the sacredness of our land. » His works are part of the exhibition Cycles of nature From the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, New York.

Wendy Red Star (born 1981)

Diptych featuring artwork by Wendy Red Star (courtesy of Wendy Red Star and Sargent's Daughters)
Image from Red Star’s ‘Apsáalooke Feminist’ series (left) and ‘Amnía (Echo)’ series. (Courtesy of Wendy Red Star and Sargent’s Daughters)

Wendy Red Star Apsáalooke (Crow) is a multimedia artist born in Billings, Montana and based in Portland, Oregon. Her photographs and collages capture historical narratives from a feminist and indigenous perspective.

Her self-portraits from the series Apsaalooke Feminist From Red Star (2016) reflects the artist’s Crow heritage and emphasizes the matrilineal nature of her tribe. Series Amniya (Echo) (2021), consisting of archival works mounted in ink on paper and mounted on panel, explores identity by “combining archival and other contemporary images with historical narratives,” according to the Red Star website.

His works are part of the permanent collections of three New York museums, namely the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, as well as many other institutions.


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