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New project spotlights work of modern Indigenous American artists


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Geoff Bennett: Once overlooked, but no more.

Art by indigenous American artists is getting more attention these days. And one new project has found a way to push the movement further ahead.

Jeffrey Brown has our report, the first in a series on contemporary Native arts, for our arts and culture series, canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: On a hilltop in New York's Hudson Valley, buildings housing artworks created by contemporary indigenous artists from the U.S. and Canada, among them, Never Forget by Tlingit/Unanga artist Nicholas Galanin, Beauty the Beast by Santa Clara Pueblo artist Rose Simpson, Warhorse in Babylon by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai.

Curator Candice Hopkins:

Candice Hopkins, Executive Director, Forge Project: I say it's a bit of an activist collection because it's meant to -- it's meant to correct this absence, particularly for these major institutions.

Jeffrey Brown: An activist collection?

Candice Hopkins: Yes, which means that it has a single purpose. Its purpose is to support the work of living artists making work right now.

Jeffrey Brown: Some of the activism is making sure it gets out in the world.

Candice Hopkins: Absolutely. And we try to reduce as many barriers to that as possible.

Jeffrey Brown: Hopkins, a citizen of Carcross/Tagish First Nation in the Canadian Yukon territory, is now executive director of Forge Project, co-founded in 2021 by philanthropist Becky Gochman and art dealer Zach Feuer with a clear mission, to support Native artists through purchases of their work, and then to lend those works to museums and other arts institutions, raising awareness of and access to Native art.

It's part of what Hopkins sees as a growing movement.

Candice Hopkins: People are recognizing that one of the missing narratives in American art history is actually the narrative of the development of Native art, and the influence Native art has had even on how we understand this country, how we understand the formation of this country.

Jeffrey Brown: The buildings that house Forge were originally designed by famed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. The location, the land itself, is important.

Candice Hopkins: Forge is about establishing presence, right? It's about indigenous placemaking. And that's not about people. It's of the places...

Jeffrey Brown: And it's not just about the art.

Candice Hopkins: And it's not just about the art. It's about the places where we live.

Jeffrey Brown: This is an area known to the famed 19th century Hudson River School of Art, landscapes that captured the drama and beauty, but not the original inhabitants who had been killed or displaced farther west.

Candice Hopkins: To return to this region, I think, for Native folks is also to talk about what that original desire was, but to say, there's actually longer histories of these lands. They have been populated for an incredibly long period of time

Jeffrey Brown: But Forge's main target is the art world. Its collection now has some 144 works by 48 artists. And it has loaned art to institutions far and wide, including the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, the Tucson Museum of art, the Whitney in New York.

For Hopkins, 45, it represents a shift from when she was first starting out.

Candice Hopkins: There were so many good Native artists working in contemporary art, but they still weren't getting the big shows. It was a kind of -- the beginnings of a kind of national conversation that had been coming actually since the '60s.

But what they needed was, they needed allies in these large institutions.

Jeffrey Brown: Bias, racism, hostility, what is it? What do you think?

Candice Hopkins: I think that there was definite bias. And I think that most of the people that were in positions of power had no knowledge of this work. And they didn't take the time to get to know it.

That shows that there's a kind of elitism that underpins a lot of institutions. And it kept a lot of us out.

Jeffrey Brown: Forge offers residencies to Native artists of all kinds. One is Laura Ortman, a White Mountain Apache who's long lived and worked in New York. A musician and composer, her sonic genre bending has been heard and seen in performing arts venues and museum exhibitions.

Forge and other new initiatives, she says, are making a difference.

Laura Ortman, Musician and Composer: We could find each other for these pathways artistically, which I was missing for many decades. Something's happened where that loneliness and isolation is disappearing.

And why is that? Because we're making spaces for ourself. We're taking care of our own communities and making sure it's not silenced anymore. It's incredible. I love that.

Jeffrey Brown: Also expanding, the scope, subject matter and styles that define indigenous art today.

Some contemporary artists are using older materials, such as beads, long considered the stuff of craft, in new ways. Others find new paths to explore long-simmering issues of land use and displacement.

Candice Hopkins: One of the definitions of Native art is that we don't have boundaries between our -- I'd say our personal lives, our political lives, and artistic lives, because they're all intertwined.

We -- in a way, we don't have that privilege.

Jeffrey Brown: Exhibitions of Native artists at leading museums in recent years offer signs of change. Forge aims to build on that momentum.

Candice Hopkins: You need to have support from institutions and collectors. There needs to be critical writing about that work, so catalogs and essays, exhibitions. There needs to be an art market, so that we're being represented by galleries.

Jeffrey Brown: In theory, if you're successful, then you wouldn't be needed anymore.

Candice Hopkins: That's right.

Jeffrey Brown: You would go out of business.

Candice Hopkins: Right. Exactly. And that would be -- that would be success.

Jeffrey Brown: That day remains far off. For now, the collecting and lending continue.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at Forge Project in New York's Hudson Valley.

Geoff Bennett: You know, it's striking to see how the richness, the significance of the art extends to the land itself.

Amna Nawaz: That's right. And I love how the executive director talked about how projects like this actually help Native artists create their own space, not just change the institution.

Geoff Bennett: Yes. Yes, absolutely.

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