Native Fashion Movement Celebrated at Peabody Essex Museum
The first, large-scale, traveling exhibition of contemporary Native fashion will run at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, from November 21, 2015 through March 6, 2016 before heading to other museums in Oregon, Oklahoma and New York City.
The exhibit is titled “Native Fashion Now,” and Karen Kramer, the museum’s curator of Native American Art and Culture, is excited. “The game is on!” she told ICTMN. Modern Native designs are expected to shatter stereotypes and bring attention to issues facing Native people today. The work of the 75 indigenous designers in the show prove this is no anthropology study. This is here and now fashion, presented as a modern Native art form.
Items in the show reflect aspects of being Native that often go unspoken. The influence of other cultures on some pieces reminds viewers that Native life is not what it used to be. A kimono painted with Plains ledger scenes is a nod to artist Toni Williams’ Northern Arapaho and Japanese heritage. A sleek gown by designer Orlando Dugi, Navajo, mixes an African porcupine headpiece with a Native inspired, embroidered wool cape.
Dugi said incorporating elements from other cultures is not news. In the 1800s, items from India and Europe, such as beads, brass, and metals, were acquired through trade. “When people look at Native fashion design, they want buckskin and fringe, inspired by the 1800s way of dressing; but that was contemporary at that time,” he said.
Dugi’s evening gowns are not culturally identifiable in any way, which sometimes takes his audience by surprise. “People love my work until they see my face. They are let down in a way and then they start to say, ‘Oh! That’s why you use feathers, it’s Native American.’ It’s kind of ridiculous,” he said.
Incorporating elements of culture is one thing, but appropriation takes a tumble as well. Pointing a finger at fashion designers like Ralph Lauren and others who use Native imagery to imply American design, the museum’s catalogue reminds the viewer that when Native symbols are used without understanding, Kramer said, “It’s like a game of telephone, where the message becomes garbled. After all, the ‘America’ these designs now represent is the same one that has oppressed its indigenous people for so long.”
Kramer, who regularly visits the Santa Fe Indian Market, said that in recent years, she has noticed an explosion of streetwear, of Native fashion designers pushing forward. “I wanted to celebrate this movement with all the energy, vibrancy and vitality that surrounds Native fashion right now,” she said.
The Peabody Essex Museum is world renowned for its collection of Native art, and for more than 20 years, has focused on bringing a deeper understanding and celebration of the diversity of Native cultures and what it means to be Native in today’s world. “We want to push the idea of what Native art is, what it can be, and for all of these reasons, this show was a great project for us to do,” Kramer said.
T-shirts with political, historical, and even international art references are included along with other daywear, evening gowns, and a multitude of fashion accessories. One artist designs skateboards, surfboards and snowboards. Necklaces by Pat Pruitt, Laguna Pueblo, are so cutting edge they look downright dangerous to wear. “Some of my designs push the boundaries of wearable fashion, but so do high heels,” he told ICTMN.
Pruitt is a mechanical engineer who designed body piercing jewelry for 17 years before turning to high end pieces. As a teneager he learned to make traditional sterling silver jewelry, but now uses stainless steel, zirconium, and titanium. Pruitt says about his designs, “I don’t limit myself to being Native. They are traditional only in the sense that it’s a bracelet, a ring or a necklace. I am culling from my Native background, but nine times out of ten, it’s just gotta be cool.”
All of the designers acknowledge the impact their culture has had on their work. Aquinah Wampanoag Jonathan Perry said his slate, copper and trade bead necklace is made from materials long used by the Wampanoags, but the contemporary design creates a connection to “traditional norms, the significance of things, and the belief systems I was taught. It’s a continuation of my culture and people, and that inspires and guides me in my contemporary artwork.”
The beaded boots of Jamie Ocuma, Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock, also take her traditional roots into the modern. Ocuma began beading when she was 5 years old and now at 37, her work has been exhibited in Europe, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and now at the Peabody Essex Museum.
Speaking about the exhibit, Ocuma said, “Contemporary Native art has had a voice, but fashion on the other hand is different.” Ocuma believes the Internet has been a game changer for Native fashion. “Everyone has a voice now. It’s hard to get into fashion in general and to get someone to look at your work. Now we are our own publishers and media people, and it’s just opened the eyes of the world through social media.”
Ocuma notes that Native designs have always been a staple of the fashion world. “Any fall season on any runway you will see Native inspired designs, and mostly they are done very badly. Now you are seeing the authentic, beautiful, designs of Native people.” Ocuma hopes to see more awareness about contemporary Native fashion. “Native design is so loved by the general audience, it’s exciting to actually be able to get it from an authentic source.”
Ocuma’s beadwork may be a contemporaty reflection of traditional culture, but her boots featured in the exhibit are fashionable by any standard. Ocuma said they are her self-portrait. “I love high fashion. I love the modern world. I don’t think I could survive in the 1800s with my people. I like my modern conveniences. But I also truly cherish my history and culture. All of who I am, is in those boots.”
The opening weekend will feature panel discussions and workshops with some of the exhibit’s artists.
The exhibit will travel to the Portland Art Museum in Portland, Oregon; the Philbrook Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma; and finally to the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in New York City. For more information, call 866‐745-1876 or visit the Peabody Essex Museum website.
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