Lloyd Oxendine on Native American Art

Artist, Curator, Critic and Activist

By: - Jun 25, 2013


Reposted from Maverick Arts
June 14, 2006

Today the field of contemporary Native American art is rich and diverse with a mix of established, mid career and emerging artists. There remains the challenge of wider recognition and acceptance in the mainstream art world. The elements are there especially in terms of training and talent. Arguably, tipping the balance of wider recognition and critical acceptance is a matter of savvy and sophisticated marketing and promotion as well as breaks and luck. Right now there are a number of venues, exhibitions and projects that are poised to play out and make a difference in the immediate future. This critical mass of potential, however, is a relatively recent phenomenon. There are the elders -artists, curators, collectors- who relate the long and difficult struggle to get where we are today.

Recently, we met with the artist/ art historian/ curator and commentator, Lloyd Oxendine, who has been an activist and advocate for Native American and minority art, since the height of the protest years of the late 1960s. It was a rainy afternoon in his spacious, pre war apartment on Riverside Drive a short walk from the Columbia University campus where he earned an undergraduate degree as well as an MFA. There were four parrots in their individual cages keeping watch and occasionally commenting on the dialogue. Drop cloths, or droppings cloths, covered much of the furniture. The apartment displayed evidence of a long career in the arts.

Seated at a table next to the window the afternoon light shone obliquely through patches of clouds. It illuminated the features of a very handsome and soft spoken, but strongly opinionated man, in his 60s, or approximately my age. From a folder he pulled out a July/August, 1972 issue of Art in America for which he wrote a seminal article, a standard in the field, “Twenty Three American Indian Artists.” Working with the editor, Brian O’Doherty, the entire issue was devoted to the subject of Native art. Leafing through the magazine, the design of which now seems dated, few if any of the artists were familiar. Oxendine produced some other documents of the period but little of the work registered. Although it was surprising to see an early abstract work by Peter Jemison, who early on worked with Oxendine, that dated from when he was a young artist, newly arrived in New York, showing with the prestigious Tibor de Nagy Gallery. Jemison had discussed that work with me but this was my first glimpse of an image from that period.

Looking back at the activism and protest/ political arts of the 1960s it is complex and puzzling to ask why so little endured and carried forward to the next generation. Much of the work produced in that highly charged era now looks strident, polemical and cartoonish. Many of the issues, agendas and creative work inspired by it (Vietnam War, Civil Rights, Drugs and Sexual experimentation, Gay Pride) have not carried forth. While the momentum that Oxendine and other activists fomented did not sustain media and curatorial interest why did it not morph and transform, as it did, for example, in the field of African American art? When raising such an argument the matter of numbers always emerges; the small percentage of Native Americans compared to the greatly more significant population of African Americans. This equates to an enormous difference in awareness of social and political agendas. Another answer is that Black Art, in general, has evolved and found its way into the mainstream. But it should be noted that a similar process has occurred among the younger generation of Native Artists even though the numbers and subsequent visibility is that much more incremental. The core issues of African Americans and Native Americans do not equate. They are very different. But they beg comparison as a control study of minority cultures within the mainstream of white America.

As has been consistent with other meetings with Native artists we inquired about identity and how that impacted his work and activism? “In my case I was born into (1942) and brought up as a part of The Lumbee Nation of North Carolina,” he said. “As opposed to being an orphan. Or someone who was brought up as white or black who may have the blood but not the characteristics. America has done a good job of destroying Indian culture. What's left are descendants of Indians saying ‘my ancestors were Indians.’ These are often people having little Indian blood. Indians can also be racist. There are Indians who relate to their white or black side. Who can say that those White Indians are not Indians?”

The Lumbee people were recognized by the State but not by the Federal government. Overall he states that it is the 6th largest tribe but was not decimated. “We were the Civilized Indians,” he said. “With the first Indian college in the late 1800s, Pembroke Normal School, and the University of North Carolina at Pembroke which had more Indian than white students.”

For his generation it is unique that Oxendine received an elite Ivy League education. From UNC he matriculated to Columbia with a major in art history and an MFA in Painting. He also studied at the Art Students League. “You dream big and get what you want,” he explained. “Before (Columbia) I wasn’t interested in Indian stuff. There was nothing to be interested in. The only thing happening was Santa Fe and Western art and there was no Indian Gallery outside of the Southwest. We were teachers and educators and we went to where the jobs were. I didn’t have to say ‘I’m Indian.’ I was Indian. I went to Indian schools. In North Carolina when I was growing up there were three bathroom facilities: Black, Indian and White. The Indians were a slight niche above Blacks who worked in the fields. We (The Lumbee) were farmers. The surviving land that we owned (after the many swindles and scams) was swampy like that of the Seminoles. We raised cotton and tobacco. The whites hated us and we knew that they needed someone to be better than. There was a Ku Klux Klan rally in 1956 and the Indians surrounded them with guns. That was the end of that.”

Asked about his own family he said that Oxendine is an Indian name from the original Algonquin language. Which he does not speak but adds that he is fluent in five languages used when he lived in Europe for four years. His (second) wife is Swiss.

Just how did his interest in Native Art develop? Apparently that started as a student at Columbia when he was astonished at how little published material existed on the topic of contemporary Native American Art. For a course he wrote a research paper on the white explorer/ artists George Catlin and Karl Bodmer. He began to ask around and collect slides. There was a 1942 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art organized by Rene d’Harnoncourt but nothing since then. There were also books on Indian art by Jamake Highwater which sold well. Indians later exposed the fact that he was born George John Markopulos in 1928.

“Most of the information on Native art comes from anthropologists,” Oxendine said. “About which there is a love/ hate relationship. Indians resent that but it’s true.” He is also critical of revisionism and commented how in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1970s there was a “resurgence of Iroquois to be more traditional.” He was most active and productive at that time. For several years in the 1970s he operated the American Art Gallery in Soho. He gave the first New York shows to such seminal Native artists as R. C. Gorman, George Morrison and Frank La Pena. He felt it was very important to try to sell the work to support the artists. He also tried to get the work reviewed. When the gallery closed he spent the next decade in Europe and San Francisco. Upon returning to New York in 1985 he became Director/Curator of the American Indian Community House (AICH) Gallery/Museum. During his tenure he organized some 40 exhibitions and worked to promote reviews and sales. But there were frustrations as AICH had a mixed agenda including health and social services which tended to limit and define grant writing and funding. This made it difficult to execute a mandate to identify and develop a core of New York based artists. He expresses some hard feelings about leaving the organization. Peter Jemison took over for a time. Jaune Quick to See Smith has discussed how she, Jemison, and other curators developed a circuit for traveling small shows but eventually that broke down.

Currently AICH is in a transition having completed a lease and is negotiating relocation as early as this fall. If all goes well they intend to resume exhibitions and programming by October.

Oxendine continues to be active with an impressive range of activities. He is a member of the Multi-Cultural Advisory Committee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He has served as a consultant and panelist for the Rockefeller Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, the New Museum of Contemporary Art, The New York Foundation for the Arts, the College Art Association and numerous Native based arts organizations. He has lectured and published extensively.

For all of this recognition and accomplishment one senses the scar tissue of years of cultural combat. “I started out as a white man,” he said. “I came to a traditional and spiritual position. In the 1970s I grew my hair long and started hating the white man. It didn’t start all at once. I got carried away but came to learn that you can’t hate people. I needed a break. We were destroying ourselves and becoming like crabs in a pot. I tried to help Indians to do things, Like consulting with Amerinda to develop a site that showcases Indian artists living and working in New York. It provides information on grants and services. AICH provides social services and referrals on conditions such as diabetes and AIDS. It provides free lunch. When I ran the gallery program I did a lot of PR, writing and sending more than 500 press releases. Once in a while you got a live one and occasionally a Times review.”

Compared with his program and mandate for exhibitions under his watch at AICH he is critical of the current efforts of the National Museum of the Native American (NMAI). “They have gotten either bad or no reviews,” he said. “It is a government organization (Smithsonian) and does not represent Indians. It represents a Government approach to the arts and employs Indians but it does not speak for Indians. We at Amerinda- -are trying to represent the community. We want to know what they need. And not just to show what is the latest and best.”

He also expresses strong opinions about organizations that present minority and fringe groups. “I am academically against what I call ‘Ouch Galleries.’ Meaning ‘I’m hurting and I’ll start a gallery and tell you all my problems,’ “ he said. “My wife (first) said ‘Why don’t you leave all this Indian stuff alone? We split up.”

There has been a lot of criticism of the NMAI in Washington, D.C. particularly the lack of clarity of the installation of the permanent collection. I asked why he thought it was a mess? “Did I say that,” he asked? “It’s America’s Indian Museum. But there was no concrete thematic planning of the exhibitions. It is too cluttered.”

He discussed some of the complexities of the legacy of George Gustav Heye who in the early 20th century amassed an enormous collection of traditional Native materials. This eventually belonged to the State of New York. It was originally housed in a museum on 155th Street and Broadway. There were many intrigues and scandals, the subject for another time. A decision was made to move the bulk of it to Washington, D. C. with a stipulation to leave a part of the collection in New York. Hence the current NMAI in a Federal building located at Bowling Green in Lower Manhattan. And while NMAI is now showing contemporary work, Oxendine expresses concern that the agenda should be to have the work seen in the mainstream venues from MoMA and the Whitney to PS1. He is critical that being content with showing contemporary work at NMAI is not proper networking. To make his point he comments that Indians have been standoffish and not worked with white people. “Indians have not worked with white people and gotten to know them. In that sense Blacks have had greater success.”

In response to such sharp critical comments I asked if he had concerns about publishing them? He shrugged it off and took another direction. “What makes Indian art,” he asked rhetorically? “Because it’s against white people? How to make it into a successful gallery? Like what is shown in Santa Fe. People want romance. They want art that is reaching out and communicating (kitsch). They buy that art.”

Here I became uncomfortable with the dialogue and perhaps hoped that Oxendine would regroup to a more mediated position. There is a lot of strong and committed work, and institutions that show it, dealing with social and political content that I am not prepared to dismiss as “Ouch Art.” Yes, NMAI has issues but they are aware and working on them. But with more than 35 years of activism behind him Oxendine speaks with the authority of his experience.

“I’m not going to be quiet,” he said. “I can do things and choose my fights.” There was more to be sure. You catch the drift. But it seemed like a good time to pack up, retreat, and live to fight another day.