The Native American Art Boom

This classic Navajo man s wearing blanket sold for $401,750 at Sotheby s this summer more than 15 times its original estimate. southwest art.
This classic Navajo man’s wearing blanket sold for $401,750 at Sotheby’s this
summer more than 15 times its original estimate.

By Norman Kolpas

Two years ago at Sotheby’s, a sale that received little attention in the general press sent a shock wave through the world of Native American art. A pot by Maria Martinez, the legendary matriarch of Pueblo pottery who died in 1980, unexpectedly sold for the record sum of almost a quarter of a million dollars. “It was a watershed not only for her work but for Indian pottery as a whole,” says J. Mark Sublette, president and CEO of Medicine Man Gallery in Tucson and Santa Fe, which specializes in Martinez pottery. But Sublette, among other experts, was hardly surprised. “We have seen her work go up in value at a rate of 10 to 15 percent a year for the last seven years,” he says. “Not even the recent economy has slowed that rise.” He attributes the growth to ever-more-widespread aesthetic appreciation for traditional Native American art among collectors not just stateside but abroad in Europe and Japan, pushing prices up for a finite pool of historic pieces.

As another example, Sublette cites the auction this past May of a Third-Phase Navajo chief’s blanket, expected to sell for a maximum of $80,000. The blanket ultimately went for five times that amount.Times are indeed good for Native American art—and not just because of the dollars commanded by historic pieces. Tribal members and non-Natives alike are rediscovering the aesthetic appeal of objects created in the old ways. “I am seeing an amazing renaissance of traditional arts, particularly weavings,” says Bill Mercer, curator of Native American art at the Portland Art Museum. He points for example to Chilkat blankets and Ravenstail weavings, both traditional textiles of Northwest Coast tribes. “Until recently,” Mercer says, “only a handful of women were doing these weavings. Now there has been almost an explosion that has grown to several dozen weavers.”

Parallel to this revival of old ways, Mercer sees a corresponding rise in the production of contemporary fine art by Native Americans. Indeed, he purposely displays new works alongside traditional pieces “to show museum visitors the continuity.” He points to such contemporary Native artists as James Lavadour and Bob Hazous, “who go beyond stereotypical imagery and work within the larger context of contemporary art movements around the world.”

“I think the artists who are getting the best reviews are those who expand upon tradition with contemporary themes or twists,” says Leroy Garcia, owner of Blue Rain Gallery in Taos. A specialist in contemporary Native American works, Garcia notes the success of potters such as Tammy Garcia and Al Qoyawayma. “They start with traditional techniques, like coiling the clay to form a pot,” he says. “But then Tammy will stylize a deer dancer or corn dancer on its surface, making a very contemporary shape that is borderline abstract. Or Al will play with the clay until it becomes like taffy, enabling him to sculpt it into Anasazi scenic ruins.”

Stella Naranjo, director of Naranjo’s Arts of Santa Fe, says that this hybrid of old and new Native American art “can hold its own with any fine art in the world.” A judge and evaluator at the Santa Fe Indian Market for more than 20 years, Naranjo has witnessed a slow but steady evolution even within that annual event’s traditional orientation. For evidence, she points to two of last year’s top prize winners. Navajo sculptor Edward Yazzie was honored for his work that blended various kinds of stone and, though realistic, “had flowing contemporary lines,” she says. Painting category winner Clarissa Hudson took mythological imagery from her Northwest Coast Tlingit tribe and blended it into almost abstract, brightly colored designs covering freestanding columns reminiscent of totem poles.

Such a trend toward diversity is not surprising to sculptor Joanna Bigfeather. As director of the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum in Santa Fe, she represents the perspective of a school that since 1962 has trained many of today’s leading contemporary Native American artists, including Dan Namingha, T.C. Cannon, Kevin Red Star, Phyllis Fife, Billy Warsoldier Soza, Alice Loiselle, Alfred Youngman, and Tony Abeyta. “What most people know of Native art is the more traditional art forms,” says Bigfeather. As a result, she sees her mission as “a continual process to educate people that Native artists are working in all mediums.” The task is a challenging one, she observes, in light of the fact that most critics and art historians “haven’t taken the time to become really knowledgeable about where contemporary American Indian art fits into the landscape.” Pointing to several recent books on American art that entirely fail to mention contemporary Indian artists, she asks a simple yet profound question: “Why are they absent? This is American art, and it’s part of the fabric of the United States.”

Featured in August 2001