Customary changes 

Walk into the Mennello Museum of American Folk Art's "Head, Heart and Hands: Native American Craft Traditions in a Contemporary World" exhibit, and you might notice what a strange, eclectic mix of objects lie around you. From displays of silver jewelry and glass-blown vessels to wall hangings and constructions of found objects, it immediately becomes apparent that this small collection has taken on a responsibility in representation almost as large as the exhibit's name. Originating at the Kentucky Art Gallery in Louisville, Ky., Head, Heart and Hands, though only a sample of the original exhibit, features 50 works from 10 tribes.

A few bold pieces immediately catch the eye. Juxtaposed by two more "traditionally" designed tapestries on adjacent walls, a dark-turquoise wall hanging titled "Insurance" practically leaps off the wall with its tongue-in-cheek portrayal of contemporary Native American culture. Designed in the image of a blackjack table, Wendy Ponca (Osage tribe) has beaded the edges of the cloth, the spaces for the cards, and a series of satiny fuchsia handprints with a mix of shiny pink plastic beads and ones appearing to be constructed out of bone.

Next to it is "Casino Prayer Stick No. 3," which also takes a stab at the prevalent spot gambling and casinos have taken in modern Native American politics and culture. A tiny circular window in each of the feather-adorned wooden tubes reveals a pair of dice.

Not all pieces are so loaded with sociopolitical commentary, however. Several glass and clay vases pay subtle tribute to their maker's heritage through design or medium alone. Stunningly detailed clay sculptures and vases like Nathan Youngblood's "Carved Egg and Pedestal" are breathtaking. It is hard to fathom that his carved jewel, shining like a giant onyx egg, was birthed in a manure fire.

Many of the works offer creative fusions of cultures fashioned from traditional and contemporary materials and techniques. "Celtic and Mayan Knot," a green glass vase encircled by a copper design, incorporates all three, perhaps reflecting creator C.S. Tarplay's mixed heritage: Chocktaw, Chikasaw and Anglo-American.

The only real incongruence within the exhibit is one often blurred in contemporary folk art. The question of what is craft is repeatedly challenged by pieces such as Truman Lowe's (Winnebago) wood sculpture "Feather Basket." The solid semicirclelike shape, painted and balanced on wooden block, would be hard to label "utilitarian" in anything but name. While the stone-polished, carved pottery works and colorful woven baskets are direct descendants of pieces once used in everyday life, overtly politicized pieces like "Stereotypes and Attitudes #11: Willie Boy" are not so easily relatable. It's a small bronze, copper, wood, brass and steel box with the figure of man buried beneath what ap-pears to be the frame of a house; the word "misconception" is tacked across the top. Stare hard enough and you can map out interpretations of dozens of weighty phrases like "public racism," "media circus" and "Robert Redford" that the artist, Tim Tiger (Creek/Muscoga), has etched along its surface.

Richard Danay's (Mohawk) "Fry Bread Fred" and "Fry Bread Freda" most capably mix craft and culture to make the perfect blend of message-art. The tops of the two round, whimsical wooden carvings carry the head of a man and a woman, respectively. Their expressions are comically bewildered as they stare down at the mix of Coca-Cola, buffalos, cherry pie and handprints depicted on their bowl-like bodies. Though portrayed in an innocent and playful manner, the seriousness of the issue at hand -- what is "American" and what is "Native American" culture -- does not get lost beneath the colorful paint.

There is no one way to represent contemporary Native American culture, and with its dozens of tribes, mediums and viewpoints, Head, Heart and Hands dispels myths of generalization, giving dimension to a people whose diversity challenges the nature of umbrella terms. Though the exhibit is compact, it offers much food for thought. Thankfully, you won't find any dream-catcher earrings here.

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More by Vivien Kim Thorp


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