The pandemic has hit us all in some capacity, but Native American artists and craftspeople have suffered a particularly huge loss. Creativity is an intrinsic part of tribal culture. For example, 77% of households in Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico, contain at least one self-identified artist, and so the lack of a physical connection has been taking its toll on many traditional artisans.
Hugely important events like the South West Indian Market in Santa Fe were cancelled this summer and with a lot of tribes lacking stable internet access, the shift to a digital medium over the past six months has been near impossible.
Brent Learned, a Native American artist enrolled as a member of the Cheyenne and Arapho Tribes in Oklahoma, creates indigenous art in a contemporary light. Inspired by artists such as Picasso, Klimt, Monet, and Basquiat, Learned presents Native narratives with a satirical, cutting edge and in bright Pop-Art-style colours. He aims to remind art lovers that Indian art can look to the present and future, both stylistically and in terms of its content.
His Masked Chief painting is particularly striking, depicting a tribal chief in profile with a white cloth mask over his nose and mouth. An earlier painting, sans mask, is on his Instagram profile, uploaded at the beginning of March. In his updated version, with the mask, there is an added nobility to survival; to don a mask, to protect yourself, is to protect your community, to lead by example and to uphold safety for the sake of others.
Learned is one of the lucky ones; he is active on social media and is still receiving financial support from commissions. For indigenous artists who cannot get that same support, organisations have stepped in to provide much-needed help, such as The Hopi Foundation providing aid to 500 families (a large proportion of the income of the Hopi Tribe comes from art sales). Similarly, Rapid City’s Fund has offered financial relief for Native artists in 25 states.
The resilience of tribal communities herein emerges; recovery from COVID’s blow will be hard, but they will return to their prime.