Connected \\ April 11, 2018

At the Edge

Karen Kramer’s exhibitions have a way of breaking down boundaries and upending expectations. As PEM’s curator of Native American and Oceanic Art and Culture, Kramer oversees one of the oldest and most significant collections in the western hemisphere. Yet, she also works to highlight the contemporary in Native American communities. Kramer’s work emerges at the intersection of the personal and the political.

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© 2017 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert

I sat down with Kramer as she was getting ready to open her newest exhibition, T.C. Cannon: At the Edge of America, to learn more about what informs her distinct curatorial practice and keeps her curiosity piqued.

Q1: What are some of the pressing issues facing contemporary Native American artists today?

Contemporary Native artists are working diligently to represent themselves as they want to be represented, which in turn works to counteract stereotypes and misrepresentations of indigenous people expressed in the media and in pop culture and beyond. It’s imperative that my work carefully considers issues that are important to Native people today as in the past, and to Native artists working today, and to think about how we can reframe our audiences’ understanding of Native people by using what artists are creating in their practice as a bridge.


Marie Watt (born 1967), Seneca. Column (Blanket Stories), 2003. Wool blankets and cedar. 144 x 20. x 20 inches. Collection of Deborah Green. Image courtesy of the artist and PDX Contemporary Art, Portland, Oregon.

Q2: In PEM’s 2012 exhibition, Shapeshifting: Transformations in Native American Art, one of the digital interactive pieces was able to track discernable shifts in the public’s perception. Can you explain this a bit and how it has informed your curatorial work since then?

We knew that there were many misunderstandings of Native American and First Nations art and culture that could be addressed in the exhibition. Formative evaluations showed us that the majority of our visitors understood Native American creativity to be anchored to tradition and relegated to the past, anthropological in nature and largely pertaining to craft in the Southwest and Northwest coast. We set up four iPad kiosks throughout the exhibition that featured contemporary Native artists talking about their work and how their artwork in the exhibition  related to themes in the exhibition. A prompt on the screen asked visitors to respond by sharing their thoughts on how this object and theme relates to their own lives. These words, in turn, populated a word cloud that evolved through the course of the exhibition and reflected back the emotional range and universal qualities of the artworks on view.

It’s always my hope that visitors aren’t just looking and passively witnessing an exhibition, but that we are able to deeply engage and draw them in. Maybe even encourage visitors to become change agents in the wider world. One particular quote from the Shapeshifting comment book stands out to me and keeps me motivated and dedicated to the transformative power of museum work: “Coming here today I understand the value of museums of art.  To slow down to contemplate. To feel safe to not know, to feel, to be awakened, to be numbed. They – [museums] and the works within – are valuable for the soul of the individual as well as the society at large.”


Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock). Boots, 2013–14. Glass beads on boots designed by Christian Louboutin. Museum commission with support from Katrina Carye, John Curuby, Dan Elias and Karen Keane, Cynthia Gardner, Merry Glosband, and Steve and Ellen Hoffman, 2014.44.1AB. © 2015 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Walter Silver.

Q3: The 2015 Native Fashion Now exhibition looked at the visual range, creative expression and political nuance of the last 50 years of Native American fashion...and it’s safe to say it hit a cultural nerve. While touring the country after its run at PEM, the exhibition was met with acclaim everywhere it went. Why do you think people responded so strongly?

I think the exhibition felt lively and fresh. The public is incessantly fed an image created by non-Native fashion designers that Native fashion is either a beaded, buckskin coat and moccasins, or a feather headdress -- something completely flattened and stereotypical that Hollywood spits out. It’s a misunderstanding that’s perpetuated on mainstream runways and is emulated in trendy, fast fashion. So, to have Native designers and Native artists representing themselves in really exciting, fashion-forward ways was eye-opening and revelatory.

There was a real element of youthful urgency to the exhibition as well. Young designers were shown working in their studios, engaging issues about cultural identity and social justice, remixing high and low fashion trends. You could hear their playlists and see their inspirations. The exhibition catalogue and wall text were all written in an informal blog-style voice, rather than the typical ‘institutional voice’ you might expect from a museum. I think it felt accessible and I’m so delighted that resonated and clicked with the public.

Q4: Speaking of youth culture, in your role at PEM you also oversee the museum’s Native American Fellowship program which cultivates the next generation of museum leaders. How does this inform your curatorial practice?

I get curatorial inspiration directly from the art and artists themselves. For contemporary art, that means staying on top of what artists are working on right now. So that often means doing studio visits, going to Santa Fe’s annual Indian Market and staying in touch with artists on social media.


Summer 2015 at PEM with Native American Fellow Alex Nahwegahbow, PEM’s Curator of Native American and Oceanic Art and Culture Karen Kramer and Fellow Ashley Tsosie-Mahieu. Photo by Kathy Tarantola

Working as the director of PEM’s Native American Fellowship program and as a curator working with many of the Fellows, I have the great privilege, and added benefit of, consulting with them on many of the projects that I’m working on. They have helped me think differently about individual works of art and they have helped me think more critically about the themes of the exhibitions that I’ve worked on. At times it makes the museum feel more like a think tank - sometimes even a college campus - bubbling over with fresh energy and bright ideas.

Native American Summer Fellows 2017 share their experiences.

Q5: This history of how museums have presented Native American art and culture over the last century is fraught and loaded. How does the field’s complicated legacy inform how you see your curatorial role?

I’m particularly mindful and aware of the weight and burden that museums carry as colonial institutions. Museums have historically perpetuated overly simplistic stereotypes of Native American art and cultures or have completely outdated displays that do indigenous communities a grave disservice. Also, many museums still today don’t work with indigenous people to help care for and interpret objects from their communities. Museums also possess many items taken out of indigenous communities when they were under duress and other challenging circumstances relating to the larger Colonial project. In my work I try to foreground the Native experience, rather than just the museum’s perspective or even my personal curatorial perspective, wherever possible. For many of the projects that I work on, we pull together advisory panels which can take many different shapes or forms, but often are comprised of a mix of Native and non-Native scholars, educators, artists, curators and Fellows from our Native American Fellowship Program. This is a really important facet of my projects because I want to be as inclusive as I can, with as many perspectives and areas of expertise that I can, so that I can be thinking holistically about what the field needs and how we as an institution can more effectively make a difference and have impact. I constantly am assessing the lines of accountability and authority between the museum and Native people. In this way, I see myself as a conduit rather than authoritative curatorial voice and that’s part of what makes my practice distinct.

Q6: I’m always struck by ‘kapow!’ moments in your exhibitions: these grand or surprising encounters that stop you in your tracks and rattle the contents of your mind and heart a bit. In Shapeshifting it was Brian Jungen’s 40-foot-long Cetology sculpture of a whale skeleton that upon closer inspection was made of plastic lawn chairs...unforgettable! Is this a conscious decision?

Well I can have pretty strong reactions to art myself and I want to share that wonder - that awe - that heartache or heart swell - I want to share that with our audience. What better way to meet people where they are and have a particularly dramatic artwork transport them to another place entirely? It’s disorienting in a really effective way and I love creating these moments in an installation.


T. C. Cannon (1946–1978, Caddo/Kiowa), Waiting for the Bus (Anadarko Princess), 1977. Lithograph. Anne Aberbach + Family, Paradise Valley, Arizona. © 2017 Estate of T. C. Cannon. Photo by Thosh Collins.

Q7: Why is your newest exhibition, a retrospective of T.C. Cannon, one of the most influential Native American artists of the 20th century, called At the Edge of America? What do you hope this exhibition will get people thinking about? What conversations do you hope it will inspire?

T.C. Cannon puts the Native American experience front and center and holds it right up against American history. He forces us to confront difficult questions and prompts us to rethink what we know. All the while, using the visual language of mainstream artists -- the oppressors, if you will -- to dive more deeply into stories and experiences of the oppressed. Many of his canvases are larger than life with bold, bright colors and pattern that literally invite the viewer to step into moments from history described through a fresh lens.

One of my favorite quotes by T.C. Cannon is: “People don’t call a work by Picasso a Spanish painting, they call it a Picasso. After all, Picasso spent most of his life in France anyway. Does that make him a Spanish painter or a French painter? I say it makes him Picasso.” I love how this reflects T.C. Cannon’s aversion to binaries; that he didn’t draw simple lines between Native and non-Native people, that he was really engaged in and interested in the space in between. T.C. wanted to be understood as an artist writ large - including as an American and a Native American artist and he believed in people’s ability to connect with and understand his work because of the shared, common humanity it revealed. I think that’s an incredibly beautiful and hopeful sentiment for our time.

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