Traditions are both utilized and challenged in the “Native Fashion Now” exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York. Presented as a path through trends within the Native American community, the exhibit succeeds in highlighting diversity of Native North American designers and their growing participation in the global market.
The exhibit is organized into four thematic sections that include pathbreakers, revisitors, activators, and provocateurs. Pathbreakers are “ground-breaking” and have “pushed contemporary Native fashion forward,” said Karen Kramer, Peabody Essex Museum curator of Native American and Oceanic art and culture, during the “Curator’s Conversation” at the opening reception on February 16. Patricia Michaels, of Taos Pueblo, fits that notion entirely with her pieces and appearance on the fashion designing reality show, “Project Runway.”
Prior to receiving an invitation to be a contestant on season 11 of “Project Runway,” Michaels said that she had never watched the show. Her unique interpretations of the challenges earned her praise from historians and fashion influencers alike as she finished the show as first runner-up. Her inspirations include minimalist artist Agnes Martin and Georgia O’Keefe, she said, both of which have visited Taos Pueblo. Using 38 different techniques, both automated and hand crafted, Michaels said her work embodies “female energy” because she wants to reintroduce nurturing themes to balance the abundance of “male energy” in society.
Revisitors within Native Fashion embrace familiar designs but mix in other inspirations to create their work. Margaret Wood, of Diné and Seminole, showcased that in her piece, “Bill.” Made to mimic the traditional Navajo blanket dress, Wood adjusted the classic navy and red patterned design with a floor-length hem and a bateau neckline. Kramer said that artists in this realm are a reminder that Native fashion is always changing and evolving. “Native artists are just as free as any other artist,” she said. Jamie Okuma, of Luiseño and Shoshone-Bannock, illustrated this freedom in her boots, hand-beaded in vibrant colors depicting a scene with birds. The boots, by Christian Louboutin, were transformed into high-fashion moccasins incorporating iconic fashion from different cultures.
The activators of Native American fashion use their designs for political expression and personal style. Designs in this section range from tribal-specific patterns to t-shirts embodying street-style culture. One t-shirt, by Jared Yazzie of Diné, spoke volumes reading, “Native Americans Discovered Columbus.”
Designers included in the provocateur section of the exhibit are more experimental in their methods. These artists are once again using familiarity, but puts the themes into entirely new sections, said Kramer. Kent Monikman of Cree re-envisions the stereotypical quiver, made to hold a bow and arrow. The outside holds a multicolored Louis Vuitton leather pattern to challenge the image of Native Americans in the Hollywood eye.
The “Native Fashion Now” exhibit is on its last stop of its tour, which included The Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts, the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, and the Philbrook Museum of Art in Oklahoma. Featuring 68 works by 67 artists and designers, the exhibit can now be viewed in the George Gustav Heye Center in Manhattan from February 17 to September 4. Native Fashion Now.
Story by Ylenia Elvy.