Baby on Board: Indigenous Art at the Ackland

An exquisite example is the late 19th-century Cradleboard by Paukeigope of the Kiowa tribe, on display as part of the Ackland Museum's current exhibit, Past Forward: Native American Art from the Gilcrease Museum. The exhibit features about 75 artworks—paintings and pottery, textiles and tanned hides, basketry and bannerstones—from 6000 BCE to 21st-century makers.


By Diana Newton

It is hard to miss the ubiquitous yellow “Baby on Board!” stickers that have proliferated on the back windows of SUVs driven by proud parents. But centuries before there were collapsible strollers or crash-tested car seats to ensure the safety of babies on the move, North American indigenous tribes used the cradleboard. Designed to provide physical and emotional security for her infants, cradleboards could be wrapped and tied to the mother’s back or leaned against a tree so the mother could carry out her tasks hands-free. Over time, cradleboards became objects of artistry in some tribes, decorated with elaborate beadwork and embroidery.

The diverse art forms in this collection showcase the curatorial gaze of Thomas Gilcrease, collector and later founder of the museum in his name and himself a citizen of the Muscogee Nation. Gilcrease accrued his fortune from an oil-rich allotment in Oklahoma, the site of a troubled history that has been vividly portrayed in the recent film, Killers of the Flower Moon by Martin Scorcese. Gilcrease protected his newfound wealth for decades by investing in art, anthropological artifacts, and archival materials. He also collected Western American art, creating a counterpoint from the Euro-American perspective in this exhibit. For example, viewers will find Georgia O’Keefe’s painting Antelope Head with Pedernal (1953), included in this collection.

The Past Forward exhibit is not a comprehensive view of Native American cultures but a concentrated collection from the Plains Indians of the Heartland and several pieces from the Southwest. Of particular interest to North Carolinians is that there are works by Cherokee artists acknowledging the tribe’s deadly migration along the “Trail of Tears” from western North Carolina and several other southern states to Oklahoma in the early 1830s. Peter Nisbet, Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs, explained that Ackland is very conscious of the importance of Native American culture to our state. The fact that North Carolina is home to the largest proportion of Native Americans east of the Mississippi influenced the intentionality of the decision to bring this exhibit to Ackland to invite more dialogue about local indigenous traditions and identity.

The exhibit is organized into four broad themes: Ceremony, Identity, Visual Abstraction, and Sovereignty. The vibrancy and diversity of the works in Past Forward puncture the lingering narrative of lament about “dying tribes.” Rather, the exhibition celebrates the fact that Native American culture is alive, thriving, and evolving as its artists both look back to their traditions and contemporize them through subject, materials, and stylistic treatment.

The flatstyle of painting seen here in “Bean Dance” uses minimal backgrounds and flat perspective, a technique often employed to protect private aspects of Native American ceremonies. Waldo Mootzka, Hopi, 1903 – 1938, “Bean Dance,” early 20th century, tempera on paper, Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, OK.

Many Native American ceremonies are still performed today, often in the form of ritual tribal dances. Museum visitors can compare representations of “Bear Dance” (Sioux) by George Catlin, a prolific white 19th-century painter, and “Bean Dance” by Waldo Mootzka, a 20th-century Hopi artist in the Ceremony section of Ackland’s exhibit. Catlin clearly paints the scene in a European landscape tradition: earthy oils, detailed dwellings, stylized dress, and an active setting. In contrast, Mootzka paints in the Native American flatstyle, utilizing no background and a line-up of inactive characters in a flat perspective.

Within the Identity thematic section, viewers will find “American Indian Gothic,” a parody of Grant Wood’s well-known painting, “American Gothic.” Instead of a severe white couple standing in front of a farmhouse, Minnesota Chippewa painter David P. Bradley depicts a couple posed in front of a tipi, the man holding a pipe instead of a pitchfork. Bradley has also painted a series of variations Wood’s iconic painting: Tonto and the Lone Ranger, Apache leader Geronimo with a rifle and one of his wives, and Alfred Stieglitz with a camera and Georgia O’Keefe. These serve as a cultural critique by challenging icons and ideals in a humorous way.

Seeing a tanned hide with pictographs documenting Native Americans fighting with Union soldiers is a provocative reminder of the complex history of oppression and erasure indigenous peoples have experienced in this country. However, their art from the past informs a way forward that insists on honoring and revealing the full colors and dignity of Native American culture.

Tours of the Past Forward exhibit are open to the public through April 28. For those who want to learn even more about Indigenous art, the North Carolina Museum of Art has an upcoming exhibition titled, To Take Shape and Meaning: Form and Design in Contemporary American Indian Art, featuring works by 75 Indigenous artists from over 50 tribes throughout the United States and Canada, including eight from North Carolina, March 2–July 28, 2024.

“American Indian Gothic” offers a sly cultural critique of the iconic painting, “American Gothic.” David P. Bradley, “American Indian Gothic,” from the portfolio, “Indian Self-Rule,” 1983, color lithograph on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Institute of the American West, 1984.78.1, © 1983, David P. Bradley. Photo by Diana Newton.

Diana Newton is a coach, facilitator, filmmaker, writer, artist, yoga teacher and general Renaissance woman. Her documentary film, The Ties That Bind, is available for streaming on UNC-TV. She lives in Carrboro and is a UNC alum.

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