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Penney stretches the canvas to highlight Native American artists

By Emma Lyons


The Henry Whittemore Library welcomed David W. Penney for his presentation, Stretching the Canvas: Eight Decades of Native Painting, via Zoom Nov. 4.


Millie González, interim library dean, opened the event and introduced Penney, the associate director of museum scholarship at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.


Previously, Penney worked as the chief curator and vice president of exhibitions and collection strategies at the Detroit Institute of Art. He earned a Ph.D. in art history and archeology from Columbia University.


Penney began by promoting an exhibit running in New York in the George Gustav Heye Center in the National Museum of the American Indian from Nov. 16, 2019 through Jan. 2, 2022.


He spoke about the importance of displaying the exhibition in New York because a lot of the bigger museums, who did not have collections of 20th century Native American artists, didn’t know much about the artists involved.


“Part of this is intended really to introduce and stress the fact that there are fantastic artists that we feature in our exhibition in our museum that really should be seen and appreciated in non-native museums,” he said.


He explained more about the exhibit, and showed pieces depicting the origins of Native American art, starting o1 with pieces by Tonita Peña and Fred Kabotie.


He explained these pieces were curated toward the visitors they would have, as that was a strong tradition within their culture.


Penney displayed additional pieces by Peña and Kabotie which both illustrated dance rituals. “Fred Kabotie said he liked to paint the dances of his home when he was lonely at his residential school, because it reminded him of home,” he said.


He spoke of the large numbers of young Native Americans making art following the end of World War I depicting their local cultures.


“The ’20s was the period of reform, and the artists were, in a sense, listed in order to make the case that here was a valuable American cultural kind of commodity,” he said.


Penney also explained that this rise in popularity of native art caused cultural pieces to be preferred in the marketplace and Native American artists were held to this style of art, causing a restriction of their creativity.


He showed pieces from this time by Acee Blue Eagle, the first chair of the art program at Bacone College, whose piece depicted a Native American woman wearing a blanket and baby carrier on her back, and Woody Crumbo’s painting of dancers.


When looking at Crumbo’s piece, Penney noted, “This picture of three equal dancers kind of arranged in this kind of tableau, symmetrical tableau, really is more modern than traditional.”


Penney also drew a comparison between the art and the artists themselves – how they were defined in similar ways. He said, “The market pretty much [supported] their efforts, but really [limited] their other kinds of options.”


He then moved on to talk about Quincy Tahoma’s 1943 piece “First Furlough.” The piece touched on the Native American impact on military service, as Penney noted “more Native Americans have served in the military than practically any other ethnic group.”


The event really kicked into gear when Penney began to speak about the difficulty for Native American artists to break into the high art of American culture.


He continued to show work from Native American artists who rose to fame throughout the 20th century and took time to give brief biographies on all of them.


As he wrapped up his presentation, he said his main goal with this exhibition was to present the wide range of creativity Native American artists have.


The attention was then turned to the attendees as they were encouraged to ask Penney any questions they had about his presentation.


One audience member asked if Native American art was evaluated in the same way as all contemporary art, or if the culture impacted the way it was interpreted.


Penney answered by saying that both were true. While art was originally not supposed to have cultural influences, they have become much more common in the modern age of art.


He emphasized that artists will always be challenging the rules of the art world.


Penney read from the introductory panel of the exhibit, “For American Indian artists in the 20th century, painting – meaning picking up brushes, haunting art supply stores, and stretching canvas – was a revolutionary act.”

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