Art That Moves

Art That Moves:

Images Courtesy of the Artists

Art transforms, translates, transgresses, transfixes and transcends. Most importantly, art moves. It moves our ideas and our ways of seeing as it moves from one way of being to another. Tradition likewise moves as it transmits beliefs and customs across time.

The term “traditional art” has often been applied to Native art that is strongly and recognizably related to material cultural practices established in the 19th century or earlier. This limiting interpretation does not recognize that tradition, by its very definition, is not static but is in a constant state of motion. Art in motion is not settled, static or safe. Too much change or motion can also be considered threatening or destabilizing. Is this why contemporary Native art that does not predictably hew to historical constructs is often rejected as inauthentic or viewed as a threat? Without the dynamic force of change and transformation, there is no growth in nature or culture.

Native people view the concepts of tradition and transformation as being inextricably intertwined, as manifested in the work of the artists featured in Transformer: Native Art in Light and Sound, opening November 10 at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.

Native cultures have always been in motion, not frozen in amber as romantic depictions in popular culture would have you believe. Therefore, a 21st-century exhibition featuring Native American artists whose work is activated by technology should not be jarring or unexpected. On the contrary, these artists boldly demonstrate the continuity of Indigenous cultures and creativity in the digital age.

In nature, motion is life. Complete stasis often leads to decline; from a biological perspective, you are either growing or you are dying. In (2013), a two-channel video work by filmmaker Marcella Ernest and photographer Keli Mashburn, the artists explore the idea of chaos and disorder as a source of power and purpose. As Mashburn states, “Osages recognize fire as a precious life-giving tool/gift, and at the same time appreciate it as one of the most destructive forces in nature.” This duality became the inspiration for this work: closely cropped images of clouds and the grasslands of Oklahoma flash and appear in configurations and orientations that transform them from conventional landscapes to beautiful, disorienting patterns, while the soundscape alternates between ethereal chimes and the voice of an elder expressing thanks and gratitude. Forced to abandon notions of traditional Western landscape, the viewer experiences the title’s meaning (the Osage term for chaos and disorder). But is not just about nature; it explores a holistic understanding of the universe that also encompasses culture. As the images cycle through a process of renewal from wildfire-scorched grassland to fresh green waves of springtime growth, there are periodic clips of dancers and an Osage bride working on a finger-woven sash to gift to her new husband’s family. It is about the metaphysical, “the microcosm of the universe created through ritual motions and the transfer of knowledge.” Understanding the nuances of Osage cosmology is not a prerequisite for a physical and emotional response.

Motion is a key component to many of the works in the exhibition. Marianne Nicolson’s sculptural installation, The Harbinger of Catastrophe (2017), creates an immersive and hypnotic experience through the use of light, which ebbs and flows up and down the gallery walls, projected from her glass sculptural work. Jon Corbett’s video work, Four Generations (2015), is in constant motion as it builds “beaded” images with computergenerated pixels. The work was created through a computer program that translates photographs of his family and community members into portraits built one “bead” at a time in a slow spiral.

Kathleen Ash-Milby (Navajo) is an associate curator at the National Museum of the American Indian – New York.