Contemporary Perspectives in Indigenous Art

Seven Indigenous artists who shed light onto the past and present.

Artists have ways of shedding light onto histories and truths in ways that leave lasting impressions. From forced relocation to the generational traumas of residential schools to internal strength and self-awareness, Indigenous contemporary artists add to our understanding of such histories, truths, and lived experiences.

The Denver Art Museum was one of the first art museums in the United States to collect Indigenous arts from North America. Today, the museum has over 18,000 works by artists from over 250 Indigenous nations that encapsulate multiple artistic traditions from these cultures, and range from ancestral times to the present.

Because of the early commitment to collecting and preserving Indigenous arts, the Denver Art Museum today has one of the strongest and most comprehensive collections of Indigenous arts from North America in the world. The depth of our collection allows visitors to explore the visual diversity and excellence of Indigenous arts as well as to consider the contributions that Native artists have made to artistic conversations throughout time. These works also illuminate themes such as identity, history, survivance, land, place, and community.

Farewell to the Smokies (Trail of Tears) (2007) by Kay WalkingStickDenver Art Museum

Kay WalkingStick

Cherokee, born 1935

Kay WalkingStick’s career spans several decades and mediums, including paintings, drawings, small sculptures, notebooks, and diptychs. Her work focuses on the American Landscape and it’s metaphorical significances not only to Native Americans but also to all citizenry.

Drawing inspiration from the natural world, she depicits monumental landscapes and Native places with the intention to glorify our land and honor those who first lived upon it. Her work expresses her own Native heritage as well as the non-native identity and mutual recognition of humanity we share as human beings.

Farewell to the Smokies (Trail of Tears) (2007) by Kay WalkingStickDenver Art Museum

Memories in Nature

WalkingStick painted this abstract landscape after a visit to the Smoky Mountains along the Tennessee-North Carolina border.

The setting recalls the Trail of Tears. This eviction of the Cherokees from North Carolina in the 1830s is evoked by the haunting line of figures moving from a sunlit mountain to a darker unknown. The event left lasting scars on the Cherokee people.  

Indian Power (1972) by Fritz ScholderDenver Art Museum

Fritz Scholder

Luiseño, 1937-2005

Although Fritz Scholder did not consider himself an Indian, he became known as a leader of the New American Indian Art movement. His work blended figurative and pop art influences to create colorful, compelling, and revolutionary images.

Taking inspiration from abstract expressionism and from painters such as Bacon, Goya, and Gauguin, Scholder’s work reveals the raw reality of being an American Indian through the eyes—and palette—of an artist who openly defied the label of "Native American artist."

Indian Power (1972) by Fritz ScholderDenver Art Museum

Power in Symbols

Fritz Scholder responded to contemporary issues of Native people and actively drew from these issues for the subjects of his paintings.  

Although he claimed he was not a protest painter, the imagery we see in this painting is similar to symbols of Indigenous empowerment widely reproduced at the time it was made. In late 1972, Native protestors occupied government sites such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs while calling for changes to federal Indian policy.

The Scream (2017) by Kent MonkmanDenver Art Museum

Kent Monkman

Fisher River Band Cree, born 1965 

Kent Monkman explores themes of colonization, sexuality, loss, and resilience—the complexities of historic and contemporary Indigenous experiences—across painting, film/video, performance, and installation.

Monkman’s gender-fluid alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, often appears in his work as a time-traveling, shape-shifting, supernatural being who reverses the colonial gaze to challenge received notions of history and Indigenous peoples.

The Scream (2017) by Kent MonkmanDenver Art Museum

Challenging the Narrative

This haunting scene by Kent Monkman depicts Royal Canadian Mounted Police, priests, and nuns ripping Indigenous children away from their parents to send them to residential schools.  

The effects of boarding schools are still felt today through physical and emotional trauma, language loss, culture change, and disruptions in the transmission of cultural knowledge. Such stories are often missing from popular narratives of governmental policies towards Indigenous peoples in both Canada and the U.S. 

Beef Issue at Fort Sill (1973) by T.C. CannonDenver Art Museum

T.C. Cannon

Kiowa/Caddo, 1946-1978

T.C. Cannon's work embodied the activism, cultural transition, and creative expression that defined America in the 1960s and 70s. 

Deeply personal yet undeniably political, his paintings reflected his cultural heritage, experience as a Vietnam War veteran, and the turbulent social and political period during which he worked. Through bold colors and mashups of Native and non-Native elements, Cannon interrogated American history and popular culture through a fresh, distinctive Native lens.

Beef Issue at Fort Sill (1973) by T.C. CannonDenver Art Museum

The Personal is Political

During the reservation era, the Kiowa people in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) received beef rations from the U.S. government near the Fort Sill Army post.  

Native women butchered the animal as they previously had buffalo. However, the rations received were often of poor quality, represented in this painting by an emaciated cow. T.C. Cannon represented the diverse experiences of Indigenous people through artwork in many media,  making him a voice of a generation.   

God Complex (2015) by Nicholas GalaninDenver Art Museum

Nicholas Galanin

Tlingit/Unangax, born 1979

Nicholas Galanin’s work is rooted in his perspective as an Indigenous man connected to the land and culture he belongs to. His work is embedded with incisive observation and critical thinking to advocate social and environmental justice.

Galanin’s work expands and refocuses the intersections of culture, centering Indigeneity through concept, form, image, and sound. His works are vessels for knowledge, culture and technology—inherently political, generous, unflinching, insistent, and poetic.

God Complex (2015) by Nicholas GalaninDenver Art Museum

Confronting Power

In his own words, Galanin describes his piece as follows: "God Complex stretches riot police armor into the shape of a Christ figure; crucified without a cross or body. The work makes visible the American belief and faith in the police state."  

"[It] referenc[es] the long history of colonial states’ use of religion to justify its violence, and the histories of violence directed at Indigenous peoples by the church itself. God Complex is the regalia of a monster, enforcing power structures that subjugate those who worship at its feet, attempting the erasure of those who do not.”  

Warrior (2012) by Rose B. SimpsonDenver Art Museum

Rose B. Simpson

Santa Clara Pueblo, born 1983

Rose B. Simpson is a mixed-media artist whose work engages ceramic sculpture, metals, fashion, performance, music, installation, writing, and custom cars.

Her work seeks to build tools to use to heal the damages we experience as human beings in the postmodern and postcolonial era—objectification, stereotyping, and the disempowering detachment of our creative selves through the ease of modern technology. These tools are sculptural pieces of art that function in the psychological, emotional, social, cultural, spiritual, intellectual, and physical realms with the intention to cure, to provoke, and to start a dialogue.

Warrior, Rose B. Simpson, 2012, From the collection of: Denver Art Museum
Explorer, Rose B. Simpson, 2013, From the collection of: Denver Art Museum
Nurturer, Rose B. Simpson, 2013, From the collection of: Denver Art Museum
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These life-size ceramic figures signify the artist’s own self-actualization and empowerment. In Warrior, Rose Simpson strategically places items that represent energy on the figure’s body. Simpson sees these as the tools needed to confront any situation. The crouching figure, Explorer, represents someone passing through a transformative dimension or event. The other standing figure, Nurturer, gently cradles an adult in a woven pod, questioning a person’s relationship to one’s self.

Crow Dance (2014) by Rick BartowDenver Art Museum

Rick Bartow

Wiyot, 1946-2016

Rick Bartow was a Vietnam veteran, a life-long musician and songwriter, and an enrolled member of the Mad River Band of Wiyot Indians. 

He created sculpture, painting, drawing, and prints over the course of his nearly 40-year career as an artist, and is considered one of the most important leaders in contemporary Native American art. His works often depicted figures in transformation, humans becoming all kinds of animals and birds, and references to Indian leaders, dance, and ceremony.

Crow Dance (2014) by Rick BartowDenver Art Museum

Changing Forms

Bartow drew inspiration from his Wiyot ancestry and was influenced by contemporary artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Fritz Scholder.

In this painting, Bartow combines a human form with a crow in a state of transformation.  Metamorphosis, or transformation, is a central theme in Bartow’s work, which is reflected in his painting technique.  The overlapping human and animal forms were achieved through repeated application, removal, and smudging of acrylic paints and graphite.   

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