Through September 4, 2017, the National Museum of the American Indian’s George Gustav Heye Center in New York celebrates indigenous designers from across the United States and Canada, from the 1950s to today. Native Fashion Now—a traveling exhibition organized by the Peabody Essex Museum and now making its final stop—explores the exciting and complex realms where fashion meets art, cultural identity, politics, and commerce. In a series of interviews, writer and cultural specialist Dennis Zotigh (Kiowa, Santee Dakota, and San Juan Pueblo tribes) speaks with artists and designers taking part in the exhibition, beginning with Barry Ace.
Congratulations on having your work chosen for Native Fashion Now, and thank you for doing this interview. Please introduce yourself.
Thank you. My name is Barry Ace, and I am a practicing visual artist drawing inspiration from multiple facets of my Anishinaabeg culture. My work can be found in numerous public and private collections in Canada and abroad. I am an enrolled member of M’Chigeeng First Nation, Manitoulin Island, Ontario.
Can you give us your Native name and its English translation?
It’s Ace, pronounced Es. The Ojibwe word for clam is es. A small clam is esiins or esens, depending on the dialect.
Where did you grow up and where do you call home now?
I grew up on Manitoulin Island and in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. Home now is Ottawa, Ontario.
How old were you when you became interested in your art form?
Perhaps when I was seven or eight years old. I helped gather material and made Anishinaabe splint-ash baskets with my great-aunt Annie Owl-McGregor.
Who are the individuals who inspired you?
My grandmother Mary McGregor-Ace and great-aunt Annie Owl-McGregor, both of whom were traditional Anishinaabe art-makers—beadwork, quillwork, basketry.
Have you competed and won any awards for your work?
My work won the K. M Hunter Visual Arts Award in 2015.
What does the title Native Fashion Now mean to you?
To me, it means contemporary Native American fashion by contemporary Native American designers and artists.
Where do you envision the future of Native fashion to be headed on the world’s stage?
With so many talented Native American designers and artists on the scene now creating new works, I envision an exciting future on the international stage. The work designed and made by Native American designers and artists is exciting, innovative, and diverse.
How do you describe the relationship between your work and traditional Native art forms?
Drawing inspiration from multiple facets of traditional Anishinaabeg culture, I create objects and imagery that utilize many traditional forms and motifs. I then disrupt the reading of these works with the introduction of other elements and technology, endeavouring to create a convergence of the historical and the contemporary.
When you are asked by the media to explain your work, how do you answer?
I usually give an answer similar to the description of my work above.
On average, how much time does it take you to complete one of your creations?
Several weeks to several months. I work in my studio, five days a week, eight hours per day.
What is one of the biggest challenges you have faced in creating your art form?
Too many ideas and not enough time.
What do you do to get inspired to be creative?
Go to my studio, to powwows in the summer. Visit family, friends, and artist peers.
Are there any unique signature styles that you are known for?
My work uses electronic components—capacitors, resistors, light-emitting diodes—to replicate Great Lakes–style floral beadwork.
How do your earlier art forms differ from what you produce today?
Perhaps my work today has become more complex and diverse in design and materiality.
In your opinion, is it significant to have this exhibition open in New York during Fashion Week?
It is significant, because the exhibition showcases the diversity and creativity of our Native American fashion designer and artistic communities in both the United States and Canada.
In the exhibition, are you presented as a Pathbreaker, Revisitor, Activator, or Provocateur?
I am a Provocateur. I don’t consider myself a fashion designer, but instead a visual artist. I work in textile and draw from my Anishinaabeg material culture as a confluence between the historical and contemporary. My work is more often than not something that you wouldn’t necessarily wear, but I think that it pushes the boundaries through materiality and new aesthetics in contemporary Anishinaabe art.
Where can people go to learn more about you and your art?
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
I would like to thank the Peabody Essex Museum and curator Karen Kramer, for her vision, tenacity, and insight in bringing together this timely and innovative exhibition. I would also like to thank the amazing Native American designers and artists from the United States and Canada in the exhibition. It is truly and honor to exhibit alongside so many talented individuals.
Native Fashion Now is on view at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York through September 4, 2017. Barry Ace's work is represented in the exhibition by Reaction.
Native Fashion Now is organized by the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts. The Coby Foundation Ltd. provided generous support. The New York presentation of this exhibition and related programming is made possible through the generous support of Ameriprise Financial. Additional funding provided by Macy’s.
Unless otherwise stated, photographs are ©2017 Barry Ace, all rights reserved.