When Karen Kramer, Peabody Essex Museum’s Curator of Native American and Oceanic Art and Culture, went to Santa Fe’s annual Indian Market, a traditional Native American juried show, she sensed there was a new, exciting movement afoot. It was edgier, unexpected and non-ceremonial.
Instead of the usual fare of beadwork, basketry and textiles, she noticed a new trend in contemporary Native American art, especially around fashion. “What I was seeing was fresh, relevant and a little bit sexy,” she said. “Native American designers were updating traditional ideas and making them their own.”
She wanted to curate an exhibit to showcase these innovative, pioneering Native fashion designers whose high-energy works break traditional boundaries with materials and invention that go far beyond the stereotypic buckskin, feathers, beads and fringe. “Contemporary Native fashion designers are dismantling and upending familiar motifs, adopting new forms of expression and materials, and sharing their vision of Native culture and design with a global audience,” Kramer said.
Kramer’s dream is now a reality with her curated show, “Native Fashion Now”, at PEM through March 6. Over two years in the planning, it is the first full-scale exhibit to chronicle the contemporary Native American fashion movement over the past 60 years. The show features over 70 artists and after debuting at PEM, will travel for two years to Oregon, Oklahoma and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York City.
One of the most unusual aspects of “Native Fashion Now” is the fact that of the 74 artists exhibited, 71, or 95 percent, are living.
With over 100 garments, shoes, pocketbooks, jewelry, scarves and accessories displayed on 40 mannequins, the exhibit feels like a Native American “Project Runway”- which, in a way, it is. Fans of the television show may recognize the white leather sheath dress that greets visitors on their arrival inside the exhibit. It is the one designed by Patricia Michaels, the Taos Pueblo artist who was the first Native American contestant on the reality TV hit show in 2013. The judges loved the dress, which Michaels hand painted with an abstract New York skyline.
Michaels is delighted that mainstream fashion lovers are embracing Native American design. “We don’t have to be stuck in this gunny sack look anymore,” she said with a smile. Kramer said that the groundbreaking Michaels’ work was the most fitting way to kick off the exhibition, and commissioned her to design the cascading parasols that lead up to the show’s entrance.
The exhibition’s four galleries — Pathbreakers, Revisitors, Activators and Provocateurs — reflect how designers respond to ideas and trends in the world of Native fashion. All take us to similar places, far away from buckskin and fringe, especially Provacateurs, whose departure from convention makes works that are experimental and one-of-a-kind.
Lloyd “Kiva” New, the Cherokee designer and first true “Pathbreaker”, blazed a trail with his delicate shirtwaist dresses. Their display pays homage to the designer’s 1950s creation of his high-fashion brand, the first Native American to do so. Their timeless style is just as fresh today.
Activators, who embrace an everyday, personal style that engages with today’s trends and politics, are represented in the third gallery by street wear, skates and a pop culture liveliness. Navajo Jared Yazzie’s bold T-shirt with “Native Americans Discovered Columbus” emblazoned on its front turns the familiar saying on its head by encouraging people to think about the truths of history.
Jeweler and metal smith Pat Pruitt, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, was trained as a mechanical engineer and worked in the body piercing industry before starting to make jewelry in the 1990s. His use of non-precious metals, like titanium, zirconium and stainless steel, creates pieces that are radically different from the traditional Native turquoise and silver jewelry.
Pruitt told the story (repeated by most of the artists who were present at the show’s press opening) about how his creations were not allowed into Native American art shows because they were “not Native enough.” He praised Kramer’s vision in creating the opportunity to showcase the individuality of the Native designer in the context of their tribal identity. “The Native art world wants me to fit in with their stereotype,” he said, pausing. “But individuality and self expression is part of our tradition.
Although Shoshone-Bannock Jamie Okuma’s beaded boots, commissioned for the exhibition, are riveting in their intricacy and beauty, they are not focus of the “Revisitors” gallery, named for the artists’ fresh, new and expanded take on tradition. Rather, it is the two pieces by non-Native designers — Ralph Lauren and Isaac Mizrahi — Kramer included in order to spark conversation about cultural appropriation and borrowing that draw the audience’s attention.
“It’s a complex topic,” Kramer said, noting that some mainstreamers feel that certain Native American cultural icons should be off limits to non-Native designers. For example, Mizrahi’s flannel gown, embroidered as the totem pole that honors North West Native families, could be viewed as offensive by traditionalists. On the other hand, his use of a sacred Native icon could be viewed as mainstream fashion’s acceptance of Native American design, using new materials to update a traditional idea and create something entirely new. “It’s meant to open a dialogue,” Kramer explained, clearly delighted that her inclusion of the piece in the exhibit had already done just that.
While the dynamic and lively exhibit shines a light on what Kramer has called a “Native American fashion renaissance”, the real spotlight is on the individuality of these contemporary designers’ inspirations as they reference their tradition while transcending culture and stereotyping. “We can choose whether we present our culture in our art and what that art means to us,” said Pruitt. “PEM is a museum that recognizes individuality. They get it,” added Michaels.
Pictured at top:
Orlando Dugi (Diné [Navajo]). Cape, dress, and headdress from “Desert Heat” Collection, 2012. Paint, silk, organza, feathers,beads, and 24k gold; feathers; porcupine quills and feathers. Courtesy of the designer, Sante Fe. Hair and makeup: DinaDeVore. Model: Julia Foster. Photography by Unék Francis.
Native Fashion Now runs through March 6 at the Peabody Essex Museum, 161 Essex St., Salem. For more information, visit pem.org.