On Nov. 10, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York City opened its newest exhibition, Transformer: Native Art in Light and Sound. This contemporary art exhibition marks the first time the museum has featured a show dedicated to new/emerging media and experiential art.
The works of Transformer are electric, both literally and figuratively, providing timely expressions of Indigenous worldviews. Contemporary Indigenous art often reflects tradition, but it is commonly misinterpreted to exist solely as part of the past. This exhibition demonstrates the continuing adaptability of tradition to find a place within today’s society. “Transformer” features 10 artists and nine installations that employ a variety of media, including light, digital projection, innovative sound technology and more, to provide thought-provoking and unforgettable experiences composed for the digital age.
Artists featured in the exhibition hail from across North America: Jordan Bennett (Mi’kmaq), Raven Chacon (Diné), Jon Corbett (Métis), Marcella Ernest (Ojibwe), Stephen Foster (Haida), Nicholas Galanin (Tlingit), Julie Nagam (Anishnawbe/Métis), Marianne Nicolson (Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw), Keli Mashburn (Osage), and Kevin McKenzie(Cree/Métis).
Excerpt from booklet:
Art transforms, translates, transgresses, transfixes, and transcends. Most importantly, art moves. It moves our ideas and our ways of seeing as it moves from one way of being to another. Tradition likewise moves as it transmits beliefs and customs across time. The term “traditional art” has often been applied to Native art that is strongly and recognizably related to material cultural practices established in the nineteenth century or earlier. This limiting interpretation does not recognize that tradition, by its very definition, is not static but is in a constant state of motion. Art in motion is not settled, static, or safe. Too much change or motion can also be considered threatening or destabilizing. Is this why contemporary Native art that does not predictably hew to historical constructs is often rejected as inauthentic or viewed as a threat? Without the dynamic force of change and transformation, there is no growth in nature or culture.
Native people view the concepts of tradition and transformation as being inextricably intertwined, as manifested in the work of the artists featured in Transformer: Native Art in Light and Sound. Native cultures have always been in motion, not frozen in amber as romantic depictions in popular culture would have you believe. Therefore, a twenty-first-century exhibition featuring Native American artists whose work is activated by technology should not be jarring or unexpected. On the contrary, these artists boldly demonstrate the continuity of Indigenous cultures and creativity in the digital age.