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'Past Forward: Native American Art': Ackland exhibit displays centuries of Indigenous art

The Ackland Art Museum displays a banner showcasing The Outwin exhibit on Monday, Nov. 13.

Hundreds of years' worth of Indigenous art is now available for viewing at the Ackland Art Museum

The Ackland teamed up with Oklahoma’s Gilcrease Museum and the American Federation of Art to present "Past Forward: Native American Art from Gilcrease Museum" from Feb. 16 to April 28.

The AFA works with museums worldwide, and when the Ackland’s Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs Peter Nisbet heard that the Past Forward exhibition was available, he said he jumped at the opportunity to display it in Chapel Hill. 

The Ackland has recently started concentrating more on Native American art, Nisbet said.

“We are thinking about presenting to our public the full spectrum of Indigenous arts if we can, and certainly this exhibition offered us a chance to present a very interesting take on Native American art from a really interesting and premier institution, one of the best collections of Native American art in the country,” he said.

The pieces in the Past Forward exhibit are a part of the over 12,000-piece collection of fine art at the Gilcrease Museum. 

The museum was founded by Thomas Gilcrease, a Scots-Irish, French and Muscogee philanthropist who gained success as an oilman and began collecting fine objects of importance to Native American history and culture. 

The exhibition consists of four sections with trans-historical themes of ceremony, sovereignty, visual abstraction and identity. 

Katharine Wright, a curator with the AFA, said that the exhibit begins with a brief introduction and flows into the visual abstraction section with an array of works such as beadwork, pottery and paintings.

There will also be works of non-Indigenous artists that exemplify the influence of Native art on American art as a whole. Then, the exhibit transitions to ceremony, where the works portray Native American ceremony rituals. 

Wright said that the various curators involved were very thoughtful in crafting the intimate narratives with color and symbolism.

“Then there's another section called self identity and it is thinking about the way Native peoples in America in particular have tried to advocate for self rule and the struggles and also the pride that so many artists take in their tribal affiliations and tribal culture,” she said.

The Ackland is presenting various collaborative discussions, artist conversations, guided tours, film screenings and art classes inspired by the exhibit throughout its duration, beginning on Feb. 16 with a guided tour from Nisbet.

On Feb. 25, Ryan Dial, the American Indian health project manager at UNC's American Indian Center and member of the Lumbee Tribe lead the "F.A.M. Fun in the Galleries: Exploring 'Past Forward'" event. 

Dial, who has partnered with the Ackland before, said he has spent most of his life practicing Native American art by dancing and playing the flute.

“I think there is a way for museums, like the Ackland and others, to kind of use their platform to break the stereotypes,” he said.

Dial said he hoped his event promoted the exhibit in a family friendly way and broke preconceived ideas about what Indigenous art is through showing its full spectrum, including contemporary works by Native American artists. He said that the arts are very important to Native American culture on both an individual and a tribal level.

“I think one of our focuses for programming for Past Forward has been to make sure that we're including community voices, and there's so many great folks on campus, in the area, and other departments who have expertise in Native American art and culture,” Allison Portnow Lathrop, the Ackland’s head of public programming, said.

These events are meant to allow onlookers a moment to slow down and absorb the exhibit. Portnow Lathrop said they encourage audiences to ask questions about the pieces’ meanings and find connections between themselves and the art. 

Nisbet said he believes the blend of art, discussions and events will give people a better understanding of the broad variety of Native American art over hundreds of years.

“I'm hoping that people's responses will range from enthusiasm and engagement with individual works to a much better sense of the variety and complexity and a much greater sensitivity to Native American creativity as it relates to North Carolina,” Nisbet said.

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