Two new Field Museum exhibitions channel enduring history of Native American art

Chris Pappan's "Thank You, Grandmother" layered atop a display case of speers and speerheads.

By Grant Rindner

A massive, majestic bison dominates two new exhibits in the Field Museum’s Hall of Native North Americans. The bison, a familiar icon in the hall, is now incorporated as part of the pair of exhibits that  glimpse into Native American art today and re-contextualize the past. Detailed illustrations by Chris Pappan, attached to the bison’s case, highlight the  grandeur of the animal’s movement in contrast to the taxidermied specimen.

Drawing on Tradition: Kanza Artist Chris Pappan.  and Full Circle/Omani Wakan: Lakota Artist Rhonda Holy Bear are on exhibit through Jan. 13, 2019, with both artists presenting a 2016 iteration of their ancestral art.

Though they share a physical space, the two artists differ quite greatly in terms of their materials, intentions, and even their relationship with the Field Museum itself.

“Living in Chicago almost all Native people know of this hall and have been here, and we all have our own reactions to it,” Pappan says. “I think the fact that it doesn’t have anything that alludes to contemporary people is what I found most depressing. When school groups come through the docents talk about how Native Americans ‘used to do this’ and ‘used to do that.’”

But Holy Bear finds the collection to be a continued source of inspiration during her decades as an artist and a Chicago native.

“I’m very attached to this permanent collection, I spent a lot of years researching [it],” Holy Bear says. “It meant a lot to me, the name of my exhibit is ‘Full Circle.’ This is where I studied when I was very young, and now I’m a mature woman and an artist with 36 years worth of work, and it was just a tremendous opportunity to be able to complete this circle and part of my journey.”

Holy Bear's Lakota Couple
Rhonda Holy Bear’s sculptures, “Black and White Lakota Couple” (1988). (Grant Rindner/MEDILL)

By using the traditional tools and iconography of their ancestors, both Pappan and Holy Bear expand the perceptions of Native American art as thriving. They present a powerful visual contrast to the rows of display cases featuring traditional Native American clothing, tools, and artwork from the past that serve as the hall’s staples.

In one particularly powerful piece by Pappan, a stirring image of a Native American grandmother is layered atop a display case filled with spears and weaponry.

“When [these items] were originally collected the presumption was that these cultures were going away, and the purpose of the collections and the way they were staged was to celebrate something that was leaving,” says Justin B. Richland, a co-curator of the exhibit and associate professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago. “Well, it turns out their demise was greatly exaggerated, they’re still here, and it’s time to rethink what these kinds of exhibition stages and platforms should be for.”

Holy Bear’s exhibit includes beaded sculptures and figures she’s crafted throughout her storied career, paired with pieces from the Field Museum that have inspired her work. Her works are an update on the dolls that used to be given to Native children by her ancestors. Pappan’s drawings and paintings are in the format of Native American ledger art, which consisted of pictorial narratives that were traditionally painted on animal hides. Both artists draw from the existing exhibit, albeit in starkly different ways.

“You have Rhonda, an incredible artist who relies heavily on the traditions of her community, the Lakota people, and also draws on the ethnographic collection here for inspiration,” says Richland. “By comparison you have Chris, who also takes inspiration from the collection, but as a way to comment on and reflect on how in some ways it’s both an inspiration and a distortion of how people perceive Native people today.”

Pappan Bison
The Field Museum’s bison with Chris Pappan’s ledger art hung on the case.

Their varying appraisals of the hall show clear influences on their work. Pappan’s modern updates on traditional ledger art, presented as additions to some of the museum’s permanent displays, portray another side of the culture and emphasize issues of identity politics and philosophy.

“Going to Native art school you learn about the history of [ledger art] and what it comes from, and I just kind of stumbled upon a contemporary, unused ledger book and thought, ‘Maybe this could be a new thing for me,’ Pappan explains. “In my work I took on the responsibility of being a ledger artist and taking it upon myself to further the tradition and move it forward and adapt it to a contemporary mindset.”

Holy Bear notes that the biggest difference between her sculptures and their ancestral counterparts is that her works are intentionally stationary but still tell stories.

“Where my people are from there aren’t a lot of trees, and because they are a nomadic people they didn’t do things more on the level of sculpture, because that would be a lot of hauling around and it demands permanence,” Holy Bear explains. “In the direction that I’m moving, I’m starting to tell the stories that go along with [the figures] – the creation stories and ideas that I get of how I want to convey a story. I use my figures now just like a fine artist would use sculpture.”

Ultimately, despite their differing opinions on the hall itself,  Pappan and Holy Bear say that the platform they have to change and expand perceptions of Native American art is humbling.

“It’s a huge responsibility to express a contemporary view of Native people today in the Field Museum,” says Pappan.

Chris Pappan’s “Thank You, Grandmother” layered atop a display case of spears and spearheads. (Grant Rindner/MEDILL)