Native American art displays evolution

Art by Ryan Huna Smith, Native American comic book artist. (Photograph by Kendra Hall/ Arizona Sonora News)
Art by Ryan Huna Smith, Native American comic book artist. (Photograph by Kendra Hall/ Arizona Sonora News)

Art has played a part in Native American culture for thousands of years, passed down from generations ahead, but now it is moving in a new direction.

Artists are using new mediums to give a different meaning to their art and their tribes. 

Artists in the Native American art scene are beginning to use skateboards and comic books to project their art, while keeping traditional designs alive in their work. 

Ryan Huna Smith is a Native American contemporary artist who creates “pop culture art” through comic books. Smith was not brought up traditionally, but began to appreciate his culture at an older age. He tries to keep traditions from his tribe alive while creating something he is passionate about. 

“We keep culture and tradition from our tribes in our artwork as far as stories, how we’re brought up, and how we’re raised,” Smith Said. “It’s contemporary in how the vision is being displayed but it still has a lot of traditions from long ago.”

 

Tim Price, retail operations manager at the Arizona State Museum in Tucson, believes that Native American art is not dying, but it is changing.

Art by Ryan Huna Smith, Native American comic book artist. (Photograph by Kendra Hall/ Arizona Sonora News)
Art by Ryan Huna Smith, Native American comic book artist. (Photograph by Kendra Hall/ Arizona Sonora News)

“The word traditional is meaningless now, art is evolving and becoming more contemporary,” Price said. 

Shonto Begay, a Native American Artist who has been painting professionally since 1983, says his work has made progress towards more exploration. Begay reaches back to his childhood and his tribe’s traditions, but has moved towards impressionism.

“We’re working in a new world, but still practicing our ceremonies,” said Begay. “We have to have time to Tweet and Instagram also. We are in a very schizophrenic time.”

Another art form that is flourishing in modern times is Native American fashion design. Cher Thomas is a Native American fashion designer and traditional dressmaker in Southern Arizona. She is Akimel O’odham and Cocopah from the Gila River Indian Community. Thomas is a third-generation craftsman and learned to sew from her mother 16 years ago. The meaning and symbology behind the designs and aesthetics is what has been passed down from the earlier generations to Thomas.

“We have a symbol called ‘the man of the maze.’ We were taught deeply the meaning of it and the appropriate time to use that in clothing and the inappropriate time and an understanding of people from different areas and how they use it,” said Thomas. 

Thomas still creates traditional Native American dresses, but she mainly does contemporary design, because she wanted to find a way to keep the indigenous culture alive. This is what most Native American art has evolved into: contemporary art with culture and meaning. Thomas learned about the designs; what they mean, how to use them, when it’s appropriate to use them, when it’s not appropriate to use them. She also understands that everything within Native American culture has something to do with nature.

Thomas uses these native designs, but in modern, contemporary art. She creates dresses, suits, evening gowns, wedding gowns, graduation caps and gowns, but is most famously known for creating ties for men. She uses her culture’s symbols and designs, but with a modern twist.

O'odham River Tie Design by Cher Thomas.
O’odham River Tie Design by Cher Thomas. Cher Thomas Designs

When it comes to art expressed through fashion, Thomas said, “The way culture has changed is, instead of in a ceremonial place, it’s everyday…You can wear a t-shirt with some symbol on it or the name of your tribe and you can represent. So really it’s about representing yourself as not a Native American person, but instead as a member of your own individual tribe in this modern context.”

Ryan Huna Smith says that his art has been influenced by pop culture, movies, and music, along with many other contemporary artists from all different origins. 

Ryan Huna Smith working on his Native American comic book art. (Photograph by Kendra Hall/Arizona Sonora News)
Ryan Huna Smith working on his Native American comic book art. (Photograph by Kendra Hall/Arizona Sonora News)

“Non-indians tend to look at it as people who lived in the past, the old west, and I don’t like being defined that way,” Smith said. “We’re still practicing the ceremonies that we practiced back then, now, in a contemporary way.” 

Kendra Hall is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at kendrapaigehall@email.arizona.edu

Click Here for a Word version of this story and high-resolution photos. 

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