Jeffrey Gibson’s ‘sexy’ new book showcases the complexity of Indigenous art

Curating the work of more than 60 Indigenous artists, An Indigenous Present challenges and celebrates what it means to be a contemporary creative.
An inside look at Jeffrey Gibson’s An Indigenous Present, which is a collection of more than 60 Indigenous contemporary creatives across various mediums. Photo provided by publisher
An inside look at Jeffrey Gibson’s An Indigenous Present, which is a collection of more than 60 Indigenous contemporary artists across various mediums. Photo provided by publisher

What started as a dream to build an Indigenous community that challenges ideas of contemporary art and colonial categorization has resulted in a catalogue featuring more than 60 Indigenous artists. The book explores what it means to combine different identities and methods of making art across the globe. 

Nearly 20 years ago, Jeffrey Gibson, of Mississippi Choctaw and Cherokee descent, began dreaming of an anthology that showcased contemporary Indigenous creatives across various mediums while moving beyond the page, offering a counterexample to earlier publications he had seen. 

According to Gibson, within the art world’s institutions, there is a history of pervasive racism, which has led to an industry that often tries to confine artists into one specific box or label their work according to identity, traditions, or their traumas.

He noted that the industry is often attached to diversity initiatives, causing many Indigenous artists to question whether their participation hinged on who they were instead of what they made.

“The culture that I’ve grown up with surrounding Indigenous people felt like the boundaries were drawn so tightly as to what we’re allowed to do, who we’re supposed to be, and what we’re supposed to look like. I’ve never fit that model myself, and I have always been drawn to other Native people who also don’t fit that model,” says Gibson.

“So much of the 20th-century writing around Native artists is almost about justifying their work and relationship to western art history, and explaining why it’s Native, and often trying to draw a direct line to precedents and beadwork, or precedents and materials or in painting.”

He added that this approach is often restrictive and limits the freedom of artists to express themselves and showcase what their Indigeneity means to them instead.

“I wanted to make a book that did that,” he said.

Headdress–Jeneen by Dana Claxton, featured in Jeffrey Gibson’s An Indigenous Present. Photo provided by the artist
Headdress–Jeneen by Dana Claxton, featured in Jeffrey Gibson’s An Indigenous Present. Photo provided by the artist

Gibson and his team spent two and a half years reaching out to an ever-evolving group of Indigenous creatives to be a part of this project.

They then worked to present their art in a large-format book with beautiful images that includes thoughts from curators, poets and writers – all while infusing the cultural and distinctly different identities of communities.

And now, Gibson’s dream is coming to life with the release of An Indigenous Present, published by DelMonico Books and Big NDN Press, on Aug. 22, 2023. 

This collection gathers more than 60 Indigenous contemporary artists, including many Indigenous artists from “Canada,” such as Dana Claxton, Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, Rebecca Belmore, Beau Dick, Wally Dion, Korina Emmerich, Brian Jungen, Meryl McMaster, Caroline Monnet, Audie Murray, Arielle Twist, and Zoon a.k.a. Daniel Glen Monkman. 

“An Indigenous Present has emerged as much out of my dissatisfaction with the circumstances I have navigated during my own career as it has from witnessing artists who proudly identify as Indigenous carve out their own creative spaces and, collectively, manifest both local and international contexts for their artworks,” Gibson writes in the introduction. 

He spoke to IndigiNews by phone from his office, a turn-of-the-century schoolhouse in the Hamlet of Claverack, just outside of Hudson, New York, where the original classrooms have been converted into sewing rooms, painting rooms, woodshops, a kitchen, and more. 

There, Gibson created a shared studio space with other artists in the surrounding area. This type of environment is exactly the sort of energy Gibson was looking for with An Indigenous Present, as sharing and reciprocity have always been an ethos within Indigenous culture.  

High heel boots covered in beadwork depicting an elk.
Elkboots by Jamie Okuma. Photo provided by artist

“I wanted this collection to be about people whose work I’m excited by that I’ve casually come across over the last 25 years, but it’s not really that casual because Native art is always a destination. It’s the world I’ve paid attention to and the people I have been inspired by,” says Gibson. 

“I wished for a different kind of art system, one that looked at and related to artworks from the cultural perspective of their Indigenous makers. I knew I wasn’t alone in wanting these things,” he says in the intro of the book. 

Look at any curated collection of Indigenous artists from the past, and what you’ll mostly see is the influence of traditional design or academic essays illustrated with artwork by Indigenous makers.

What the creators in An Indigenous Present are making moves past those distilled perspectives, allowing for the pieces to be in conversation with one another rather than an addition to the curator’s thoughts. 

And it is this that Gibson hopes to interrogate, stating that “other Indigenous artists were contributing to – and authoring – new conversations that challenged the outdated perceptions of who we are and what we make” already. 

He said that the underlying message is that being Indigenous is instilled within the creator, and within these intersections of different identities, this collection aims to “create a visual experience that foregrounds diverse approaches to concept, form and medium as well as connection, influence, conversation and collaboration.”

“We are spread far and wide, and we are all very different. So you’re going to talk to one person who is Inuit, and they’re going to talk to you about materials and intention in one way. And then you’re going to talk to a Pueblo person, and they’re going to share something completely different,” he shares. 

Tout est possible 01 by Caroline Monnet, featured in Jeffrey Gibson’s An Indigenous Present. Photo provided by the artist
Tout est possible 01 by Caroline Monnet, featured in Jeffrey Gibson’s An Indigenous Present. Photo provided by the artist

With a history of displacement, banning cultural practices, and a global industry of fake Indigenous art, these artists are working hard to reimagine a new space that binds the past, present, and future. And since the lifting of the potlatch ban in 1951, Indigenous creators have, in fact, been revitalizing and redefining their presence in the art world while expressing creative and cultural sovereignty. 

Working alongside many curators over the years, Gibson spent a lot of time thinking about how Indigenous artists have been presented historically. They often showcased it based on the region or generation of the artist, or whether it was traditional or contemporary, but with this collection, he wanted to consider the contents of the artwork he was looking at.

“I really want this book to help contextualize, even if there’s an artist who isn’t in the book, this book could serve to give context to their work,” he explains. 

Gibson and his team made over 60 virtual studio visits with Indigenous artists before sitting down to organize the content in a way that didn’t have to section artists into areas such as “textiles,” “painting,” or “weaving.” 

Working with managing editor Jenelle Porter and the graphic design studio OTAMI-is based in Tiohtià:ke (Montréal), they had many conversations about art, concepts, materials, community, the art scene, and more.

Never Forget by Nicholas Galanin, featured in Jeffrey Gibson’s An Indigenous Present. Photo provided by the artist
Never Forget by Nicholas Galanin, featured in Jeffrey Gibson’s An Indigenous Present. Photo provided by the artist

“I wanted to make a lavish picture book (“sexy” was a word I used a lot to describe this project) that invites an audience to consider the creative and conceptual spaces artists need to think freely, disrupt the flow, take chances, make mistakes, and even fail in the process of creating something new,” Gibson shares in the introduction of the book. 

It was also crucial for Gibson to incorporate Indigenous humour into this collection because it is rooted within the culture and has always been a form of survival. 

“This book includes many artworks that make me laugh with their cleverness and sarcasm, made by artists like Rebecca Belmore, Lewis deSoto, James Luna, New Red Order, Wendy Red Star, and Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie, among others,” Gibson writes in the intro. 

“These artworks operate in the realm of a knowing wink from someone who understands what it is like to be Indigenous in the 20th and 21st centuries.”

One important intention from the beginning was the creation of an equitable distribution plan, which asked each artist to share up to four addresses of places where they want to send the book free of charge, creating low-barrier access to the book within their communities and in places like independent, Indigenous run spaces and public libraries. He shares that the book has already gone into its second printing before its release. 

“An Indigenous Present is not meant to be the definitive account on the subject of Native and Indigenous art and artists. Not at all,” he wrote.

“There is so much work to be done, so many histories to recount and collect. And most importantly, there are so many emerging artists to nurture and support.”

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