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Anonymous No More: 'Hearts of Our People' Exhibit Honors Native Women Artists

Christi Belcourt (Michif), The Wisdom of the Universe, 2014, acrylic on canvas

'Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists' opened this week at the Philbrook Museum in Tulsa. This landmark exhibition features 98 women artists representing 52 tribal Nations from the United States and Canada.

The Tulsa institution closed in March due the coronavirus pandemic and is still limiting the number of visitors inside by providing timed tickets to their new show. 'Hearts of Our People' is the first major traveling exhibition featuring painting, pottery, textiles, photography and installation of nearly 100 Indigenous women artists from the past and present.

As people gathered in Philbrook's lush gardens on a recent member preview night, Cherokee singer and songwriter Kalyn Fay performed for visitors with her blend of soulful rhythms and heartfelt lyrics.

'Hearts of Our People' has been in the works since 2014. Curators at the Minneapolis Institute of Art brought 21 Indigenous women artists, scholars and academics to have a discussion that centered around a question: Why do Native women make art?

"It's not just talking about work that is currently being made, but It's talking about work that was made hundreds of years ago," said Anita Fields.

Fields is a Tulsa Artist Fellow from Hominy, Oklahoma who works in ceramics, installation and textile. She's one of the advisors that helped put the show together.

She says many times, when someone visits a museum that has works made by Indigenous women, no name is listed, we don't know who the artist is.

"Today you have this continuum of women artists, makers in the communities who are continuing those traditions of creating. within that there is knowledge, there is memory, there is continuing, you know, continuation of our cultures."

The exhibit is divided up into three sections: Legacy, power and relationships.

Within those sections are artists such as Muscogee (Creek) painter Joan Hill, Ojibwe painter Andrea Carlson, Sicangu Lakota mixed media artist Dyani White Hawk and Santa Clara Pueblo artist Rose B. Simpson who's El Camino "Maria" is placed in the Philbrook Gardens.

Philbrook's curator of Native American Art Christina Burke is one of the organizers and advisors for the show. She thinks one of the important aspects of this exhibit is how Native voices are prioritized.

"Not just in the videos and the interviews with artists and advisory board members, but translating object labels into Indigenous languages from their community of origin," Burke explained.

Burke says the shut down created some challenges for the museum but also allowed them to be more creative. One example: Philbrook partnered with the Intertribal Agricultural Council and the Pawnee Nation Seed Preservation Project-both donated heirloom seeds to plant in the organic vegetable garden. The harvest will go to the food bank of eastern Oklahoma.

"We've also partnered with local artists and indigenous communities to augment, supplement, complement, add more Oklahoma specific experiences for our visitors," said Burke.

Both Burke and Fields want visitors to the show to experience Native art not through this tunnel vision, but something that challenges perceptions and stereotypes.

Credit Tom Fields
The Osage Wedding Coat

The Osage Wedding Coat Fields created is all about that. She wanted to include Osage history in the coat. He grandfather's image appears on the silk. There's also excerpts from treaties, Osage words and DNA symbols embroidered in gold.

Field explained that the Osage Wedding Coat's history came to the Tribe through diplomatic gatherings. They made their way into the ceremony for arranged marriages, until that ended in the 1950's. Now it's used during Osage ceremonial dances to "pay for the drum."

"I like to think of it as a way to think about how we Indigenize clothing and how our esthetic is found within our clothing. But, the idea of transformation, not only in physical transformation, but spiritual and mental."

Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists will be on display at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa through January 3rd. More information can be found at philbrook.org.

Allison Herrera is a radio and print journalist who's worked for PRX's The World, Colorado Public Radio as the climate and environment editor and as a freelance reporter for High Country News’ Indigenous Affairs desk.
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