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Review: We Are Here at the Eiteljorg

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Bonnie Devine's "Canoe", mixed media and graphite on paper, thread, twine, and beads.
  • Bonnie Devine's "Canoe", mixed media and graphite on paper, thread, twine, and beads.

Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, through Feb. 12

The canoe has become one of the iconic images of Native art in North America - and not just in the world of Native artifacts, but in the contemporary art scene as well. And we might think of the Eiteljorg Contemporary Art Fellowship (the streamlined new name for the Fellowship for Native American Fine Art) as a metaphorical canoe: the biennial program has traveled the near and far shores of contemporary fine art made by Native American artists since it kicked off over a dozen years ago.

Among this year's five fellows, Bonnie Devine (Ojibwa) has taken on the canoe image in yet another way: her simply titled "Canoe," (2003: mixed media and graphite on paper, thread, twine, beads), suggests the old joke motif, "When is a canoe not a canoe?" The answer? When it's fashioned, quite literally, from her master's thesis on uranium mining: hand-written thesis pages comprise the walls of the canoe. Devine's meticulously crafted life-sized canoe captures strikingly one of the most poignant aspects of the deservedly world-renowned Eiteljorg program - namely, that art can be both beautiful and truthful, often in ways that hurt, often with political or historical implications.

Devine's consideration of the canoe in contrast to the ravages of uranium mining recalls for me a week-long hike in Divine's Ojibwa country up in Northern Minnesota. Seeing Divine's ethereal canoe in the Eiteljorg gallery, suspended in air, recalled my sense that a deadening had taken place as a result of stripping of the land. Vistas of hollowed-out earth contrasted with stunning shows of fall color leading to the distant Lake Superior, a metaphor if ever there was one for the consequences of human acts of dominance.

All of the Fellows take backward and forward glance to reveal we still have much to confront about our complicated past - from the spare sculptures of Alan Michelson (Mohawk), also fashioned ironically from texts, to the brilliantly layered acrylic paintings of Duane Slick (Meskwaki/Ho-Chunk), whose subtle and yet powerful imagery of Native Americans in various states of battle suggest, also literally, that between black and white is a multitude of grays. One can never hear this message enough. Other Fellows include Anna Tsouhlarakis (Navajo/Creek/Greek), whose photographic narratives suggest loss and disconnection, and Skawennati (Mohawk), who creates virtual reality "games" and images tense with conflict and the dark promise of a violent clash. The canoe travels on.

Skawennati, "Timetraveller(tm): Dakotas Raise Weapons"
  • Skawennati, "Timetraveller(tm): Dakotas Raise Weapons"

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