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'Postmodern Native': Exhibit challenges stereotypes about Native Americans and their art

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Edward M. Puchner, executive director at Greenville Museum of Art, talks about artist Jessica Clark's self-portrait. “It kind of drew from her experience while she was outside of her community of Robeson County, when she was in art school at the Savannah College of Art and Design," Puchner said. "There were a lot of comments made about the way she looks. She recorded them and incorporated them into this self-portrait."

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By Kim Grizzard
The Daily Refletor

Saturday, November 3, 2018

November's Native American Heritage Month is a look back at the ancestry, traditions and contributions of American Indians. But a new exhibit at the Greenville Museum of Art provides a current perspective of one North Carolina tribe.

“Postmodern Native: Contemporary Lumbee Art,” which has an opening reception on Thursday, explores what it means to be Native American and challenges stereotypes associated with this people group. The premiere exhibit features the work of Lumbee artists Jessica Clark, Hatty Ruth Miller and Ashley Minner.

“This is a show of three artists, but it's also a show about Native American identity,” Greenville Museum of Art Executive Director Edward M. Puchner said. “It is a group of three artists that all in some way engage with the stereotypes of Native Americans and the Lumbee.”

“Postmodern Native,” which continues through March in the West Wing and Commons galleries, is devoid of baskets, bead work, blankets and other cliched crafts. There are no tom-toms or dream catchers.

“There isn't anything here that is what one might think is typical of Native American art, and that is sort of by design,” Puchner said. “They specifically set about with their work to challenge expectations of what Native American art is in a lot of different ways.

“Native Americans don't live today as they did 600 years ago,” he said. “There is a changing concept of a Native American; there is a changing concept of a Lumbee. They're trying to get at that with their work.”

Puchner first became familiar with the artists during a visit to The Museum of the Southeast American Indian at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, where his wife, Nancy Palm Puchner teaches art history and has published an article about Lumbee identity. The museum, which exhibits artifacts, arts and crafts, included works by Robeson County-area artists Miller and Clark, though their works were not exhibited together.

The Greenville Museum of Art exhibit draws its name from Clark's master's thesis, which chronicles her journey as an artist and as a member of the Lumbee tribe.

A Roland native, Clark recalls struggling to find her niche as an artist and being frustrated when people seemed to push her toward traditional works by Native American artists.

“It eventually became this kind of rebellion against the traditional native art because that's what people thought I should be painting,” the 35-year-old Lumberton High School art teacher said in a telephone interview. “That's what native art was supposed to look like.”

Though Miller was born in California and is a generation older, she can relate. A painter for some four decades, she creates abstract images that do not fit conventional notions of Native American art.

“Most people have no idea what Indian art looks like,” Miller said. “Most people know nothing about Indians. We only know what we have seen in movies, really or on a TV show.

“I think there is an expectation of a certain look which was largely influenced I suspect by western American Indian art.”

When Clark left Robeson County, which has a large concentration of members of the Lumbee tribe, to attend the Savannah College of Art and Design, she discovered that people not only had preconceived ideas of what Native American art should look like. They also had expectations of what Native Americans should look like.

Clark quickly realized that she did not fit the mold. She recalls that at times people would address her in Spanish, presuming that her heritage with Hispanic.

“I had people stop me on the street and ask me what color I was,” Clark said. “That was kind of jarring.”

Clark's painting,“Things You've Said,” was inspired by her encounters with people unfamiliar with her culture. The self-portrait, which is included in “Postmodern Native,” includes comments people made to question her heritage.

“You don't have high cheekbones or dark brown skin,” reads one such comment, which is written across her nose and extends the width of the painting. Around Clark's lips are the words, “You're not native, you're black.”

Such comments hit close to home for Minner, even though she grew up nearly 400 miles away in Baltimore, Md., which is said to have the largest Lumbee community outside of Robeson County.

“Most commonly, people think I'm Puerto Rican or Dominican, but I've gotten everything under the sun,” Minner said. “...They're trying to figure out what box to put you in.”

To challenge that mentality, Minner, a folklorist for the Maryland State Arts Council and a lecturer in the department of American studies at University of Maryland Baltimore County, collaborated with photographer Sean Scheidt on “The Exquisite Lumbee Project.”

Several portraits from the project, which are featured in “Postmodern Native,” depict Minner's contemporaries in modern-style clothing with few visible indicators of their Native American heritage.

“The reason was to get people to come face to face with them in a gallery and realize, 'Oh, this is what an Indian looks like or is like or could be like' instead of whatever idea they had in their head,” Minner said. “I hope their ideas about who native people are are opened up as a result of visiting, that they realize our identities are complex and rich and beautiful.”

Minner said “Postmodern Native” is especially timely, not only because of Native American Heritage Month but also because of recent political controversy about what makes people Native American.

“We have Trump and Elizabeth Warren fighting about what makes somebody an Indian and neither of them are right,” Minner said, adding that tribal groups do not necessarily agree on the issue. “The pundits are getting it just as wrong.”

Minner's other contributions to “Postmodern Native” include a series of photographs of members of the Lumbee community from the 1950s to 1970s, accompanied by oral interviews that museum-goers can hear. In addition, Minner's “Exquisite Lumbee, Cadavre Esquis Artist Book,” which has been exhibited at the Center of the Study of the American South in Chapel Hill, will be included.

The book is made up of a series of portraits that are divided into strips so that selected features may be interchanged.

“Facial features can be mixed and matched at the viewer's will,” Puchner said. “It creates this interactive where you recognize that Native Americans comprise a wide range of physical characteristics.”

Clark hopes “Postmodern Native” will demonstrate that Native American art is as diverse as the people it represents.

“We don't fit into one box,” she said. “Everybody can look different. ... There's no right way to do native art as well. I'm hoping it will open people's eyes to different styles that native people can create in and the different materials we can use. It doesn't all have to be baskets and weaving and bead work.”

The Greenville Museum of Art, 802 Evans St., will host a panel discussion from 6-7:30 p.m. on Wednesday as part of the exhibit “Postmodern Native: Contemporary Lumbee Art.” The discussion will include Hatty Ruth Miller, Ashley Minner and Jessica Clark, artists featured in the exhibit, along with Lumbee historian Malinda Lowery and ECU art historian Jessica Christie. It also will feature a Native American music performance by The Grey Wolf Juniors. An opening reception for the exhibit will be held from 6:30-8 p.m. on Thursday. The discussion and opening reception are free. A members-only preview will be held from 5:30-6:30 p.m. For more information, visit gmoa.org or call 758-1946.

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