"Unbound: Narrative Art of the Plains"—3 quick questions for curator Emil Her Many Horses
On Saturday, March 12, the exhibition Unbound: Narrative Art of the Plains opens at the National Museum of the American Indian's George Gustav Heye Center in New York. Unbound reflects the dynamic tradition of narrative art among Native nations from the Great Plains. Plains narrative art took shape through various media, such as painted deerskin war shirts and buffalo robes. As trade broadened during the 19th century, artists created elaborate battle scenes on large canvas tipi liners and used muslin cloth, as well as hides, to record winter counts, some documenting more than 100 years of history. When the U.S. government established forts and reservations on the Plains and ledger books became available to tribal members, Plains artists filled their pages with narrative drawings. Native artists began reviving “ledger art” in the 1970s, creating vibrant and widely collected drawings and paintings. Unbound includes historic drawings and paintings, as well as more than 50 works by contemporary Native artists commissioned by the museum.
Next Thursday, March 10, at 6 in the evening, Emil Her Many Horses (Oglala Lakota) will give a curator's talk on Unbound at the Heye Center. Attendees will also have a chance to preview the exhibition. We asked Emil to take a few minutes in the run-up to the opening to give us a brief interview.
What gave you the idea to do this exhibition?
Emil Her Many Horses: Two things, really. One is that the museum has such a great collection of Plains narrative art. These are drawings or paintings that document war deeds and horse raids, and also personal experiences, like courtship, or subject matter that is both historic and personal, like the books of drawings made in the late 1870s by the southern Plains men held in the military jail at Ft. Marion. In addition, the Smithsonian has remarkable photographs and other materials that shed light on the historical narrative art in our collection.
My second reason is that, as an artist who takes part in many art shows, I see what Plains artists are doing with narrative art now. Plains narrative art has always reflected personal, as well as tribal, experiences, and that is still true of these contemporary pieces. Dallin Maybee, for example, illustrated his experience as a prosecutor at Gila River. He has also created what he calls an indigenized version of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, because he loved the book as a child and loved reading it to his own children. Lauren Good Day Giago has taken what was traditionally a men’s art form and used it to show traditional activities, but traditional activities of women and families. I knew Dwayne Wilcox would do something humorous, and one of his drawings for the exhibition shows powwow dancers busy on their cell phones.
Is there something you learned or something that surprised you in curating the exhibition?
I was surprised, and I think other members of the exhibition team were surprised, by how truly strong the museum’s collection of Plains narrative art is, and especially by how strong the collection of contemporary narrative art is. With the support of donors, we've been collecting 20th- and 21st-century art for a while now, and it shows.
Is there an idea in particular you hope visitors will take away from the exhibition?
I hate to reduce it to one idea, but I guess I want people to see how the historic tradition of narrative art inspires artists today. For example, we have the Long Soldier Winter Count—with entries drawn by several artist-historians from 1798 to 1902—on view with Red Bear’s Winter Count—Martin E. Red Bear’s record of a significant event in his life for each year from 1980 to 2004.
Above: Long Soldier Winter Count, ca. 1902. North Dakota. Muslin, paint. 11/6720
Right: Red Bear's Winter Count, 2004. Martin E. Red Bear (Oglala/Sicangu Lakota, b. 1947). Canvas, acrylic paint. 26/8020
I also hope visitors will find specific works that are meaningful to them. As the exhibition’s curator, I feel strongly about every piece in Unbound, but I have to admit, what comes to my mind when I think about this question is Sherman Chaddlesone’s last painting. Sherman’s great-grandmother kept a ledger calendar for 78 years, which he credited with inspiring his interest in narrative art. Unbound includes a few of his paintings of Kiowa tribal history and cultural traditions. One shows members of the Kiowa Black Leggings Society dancing around a tipi. The striped tipi design is used specifically by the society, and the dancers wear red capes like the capes captured by Kiowa warriors in battle with the Mexican Army. Today the Black Leggings Society is made up of U.S. military veterans, and as a Vietnam veteran Sherman included himself among the dancers. He died before he finished the painting or signed it, but I visited him while he was working on it, and he pointed himself out among the dancers with great pride.
In commissioning new work for Unbound, I asked all of the contemporary artists to think about what best represents them. I think that’s something people will definitely be able to take away from the exhibition.
Thank you for taking the time to do this interview before the opening.
Thank you. I hope you can come to the talk Thursday evening.
Unbound is curated by Emil Her Many Horses (Oglala Lakota), with historic works from the museum's collections by 14 artists. The 11 who are known by name are Long Soldier (Lakota/
Works commissioned by the museum for Unbound are by Dr. Ronald Burgess (Comanche), Sherman Chaddlesone (Kiowa), David Dragonfly (Pikuni), Lauren Good Day Giago (Arikara/
Generous support for the project is provided by Ameriprise Financial.