Contemporary native art serves as focus of new exhibit at Crystal Bridges

Kent Monkman “History is Painted by the Victors” acrylic on canvas / Photo courtesy of the Denver Art Museum

In Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art’s newest exhibit, old ideas are made new again. The debut of “Art for a New Understanding: Native Voices 1950s to Now” unveils a collection of art made by Native American artists from around the country. Candice Hopkins, a member of the Carcross/Tagish First nation and an independent curator who helped assemble the exhibit for Crystal Bridges, told members of the media gathered for a Thursday preview that themes like land use and displacement are common in the assembled media, which spans sculpture, painting, performance art and more.

The artists are “thinking about 1,000-year-old stories and how they could be discussed in the 60s,” Hopkins said.

What: “Art for a New Understanding: Native Voices 1950s to Now”
When: Opens Oct. 4 for members and Oct. 5 for the general public and runs through Jan. 7
Where: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville
Cost: Free
Information: Call 479-418-5700 or

And in decades to come. The works in “Art for a New Understanding” are very fresh. One is so fresh, in fact, that it was finalized on the gallery walls in the last two weeks. Athena LaTocha’s work “Ozark (Shelter in Place)” spans about 20 feet of gallery wall. LaTocha’s inspiration for the representational works comes from time she spent exploring bluff shelters in Pea Ridge Military Park. The mixed media work is stained by soil from the area; it glistens with a sheen of local quartz flecks. The landscape also contains lead sheets formed when LaTocha pressed them against the bluff shelters. In her site research, she discovered markings from the 1890s. The old shelters, used for decades and perhaps centuries before that, were made new through the work.

More than 75 works are assembled for the collection. Mindy Besaw, curator at Crystal Bridges and a co-curator for the exhibit, said “Art for a New Understanding” seeks to correct an oversight in the curatorial world. The connections between native artists and the better-known artists they inspired have not been explored in depth.

“It’s an error. We’re going to fix that, and we’re going to inspire institutions to do the same,” Besaw said. She also acknowledged the tribes native to area where the museum campus is situated.

The idea for the exhibit came from former Crystal Bridges curator Manuela Well-Off-Man, who left the local museum in 2016 to become chief curator of the IAIA of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Hopkins, in addition to pointing out grittier themes, highlighted the humor in many of the works. Pieces such as “Trade (Gifts for Trading Land with White People)” by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith touches upon the contemporary issue of mascots based on stereotypes with wry look at the memorabilia we use the celebrate the teams. And Kent Monkman’s reimagining of a Hudson School landscape – it’s based on a Albert Bierstadt work – completely flips the script. It places a kinky boot-wearing alter ego of the artist painting a mountain scene filled with Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s men. Monkman’s work is appropriately titled “History is Painted by the Victors.”

Cannupa Hanska Luger “Conceived” Mirror Shield Project / Drone Image Still by Rory Wakemup

The works are loosely displayed in chronological order, which means viewers are taken from abstract expressionism to a modernist sculpture obviously dated in the mid-1990s, when Air Jordon shoes were at their most popular. Artist Brian Jungen took those Nikes and deconstructed them, creating a semblance of a headdress.

The works also confront more contemporary issues. Cannupa Hanska Luger’s work “Mirror Shields” were used at the recent protest at the Standing Rock Reservation in North and South Dakota. The shields were combined with a ritual dance and attempt to reflect back the actions of those on the other side of the protest. Several of the shields and a video of the dance are on view in the exhibit.

Many of the artists involved with “Art for a New Understanding” will visit Crystal Bridges during the run of the exhibit, which opens to the public on Saturday and runs through January 7. Admission is free, although tickets must be reserved through the museum’s website or front desk.

After its run in Bentonville, the exhibit will travel to three additional museums in the next two years. A catalog chronicling the works is due Oct. 15 from the University of Arkansas Press.

Selected events

Below is a selection of events associated with “Art for a New Understanding.” For a full list, visit

Oct. 5 at 7 p.m. – Opening lecture with Rebecca Belmore
Oct. 12 at 7 p.m. – Reclaiming Native Identity with with Anna Tsouhlarakis
Oct. 28 at 1 p.m. – Painting workshop with artist Yakita Fields
Oct. 6 at 7 p.m. – Orchestral Pow Wow Project
Nov. 10 at 6:30 p.m. – Art Night Out