Kim Peone is juggling a whirlwind of schedules, vendors, breathtaking artwork and logistics for getting more than 115,000 worldwide visitors through the winding streets of Santa Fe, New Mexico. She’s counting down the days until the centennial anniversary of the legendary Santa Fe Indian Market, the largest and most prestigious such event in the country. It’s a job few could manage. But Peone — a finance whiz who’s known for rebuilding tribal bank accounts — says her role as executive director of the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts is a calling.
“An awakening is happening,” she asserts. “People think the market is just about art, but it’s also about politics.” Peone points to the emergence of contemporary artists like Cara Romero, a Chemehuevi fine art photographer who uses digital images to highlight the legacy of Indigenous people. Or Cannupa Hanska Luger, whose 2018 installation of thousands of handmade clay beads represented victims of gender violence. And Peone says hosted online roundtables give creatives a platform to discuss the issues that influence their work: social justice, Native rights, voter engagement and the like.
More than simply an awakening, Indigenous communities are igniting at a time when the rest of the world seems to be imploding. Indeed, contemporary art is proving not only to be an increasingly important economic engine for tribal groups but also an opportunity for artists to become prominent activists who can bring about meaningful change.
“It’s an unprecedented era now to share our true selves with the world,” explains Felipe Colón, academic dean at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where an enrollment surge has created the largest student body in the school’s 60-year history. Native educators believe decolonizing studies gives strength to cultural storytelling, creating a legacy of leaders from the past and blending those practices with what’s being taught today.
“There’s a confluence of things happening,” Colón notes. “With the recent Hollywood discovery of TV shows like Reservation Dogs and Rutherford Falls, people feel like they can relate to the traumas of Indigenous people now. There’s a feeling that the injustices suffered by Native people — water protection, environmental issues and more — are traumas now centered in the contemporary experience. This is a big moment of resonance.”
While the world is in flux, Indigenous communities have remained consistent, says Colón. He explains that the IAIA — as well as tribal groups across the country — is turning to contemporary art to develop future leaders to create an era of self-determination for Indigenous peoples. They’re doing so through critical thinking about a community’s presence via creative expression and so-called survivance: rejecting the romanticized images of Native peoples as victims and turning disenfranchisement on its ear, at once contemporizing cultural designs and transforming art into activism.
Colón, like Peone, believes that using the power of contemporary art to tell their own narrative is a new freedom for Native peoples. “These are new and sustainable practices — preservation and perpetuation of Indigenous communities,” he asserts.
Is a renaissance afoot? “I sure hope so,” says Santa Clara Pueblo mixed-media artist Rose B. Simpson, whose work — like her stunning 1985 Chevy El Camino lowrider, “Maria” — was part of a groundbreaking traveling exhibition centered around Native women artists, Hearts of Our People, seen in museums across the country. She explains that her sculptural creations are meant to encourage a healing journey of “inward navigation” through social and cultural realms.
“A lot of my work is about that deep dive into internal awareness,” shares Simpson, who’s now part of a movement that’s been happening long before the 21st century. She believes cultural representation through creative storytelling offers Native peoples the opportunity to create a more hopeful future and to challenge the idea of dependency on others to regain their power.
“My daughter’s future is in a state of her own strength — something we’ve never known,” she says passionately. “It’s exciting to see how future generations can navigate more intentionally. Learning how to navigate their internal awareness puts a lot of power in young people. It’s a level of awareness that increases our voice in the world.”
But then Simpson pauses. Her pragmatism surfaces. After all, a renaissance takes great effort. “We have more work to do,” she underscores.