How do Native American designers transform traditional beading, ancient symbols, social commentary, and tribal embroidery into contemporary fashion?
Answers are on display in the exhibition, Art of Indigenous Fashion at Santa Fe’s IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Art (MoCNA) through January 8. It’s a fitting exhibition that opened in conjunction with the tenth anniversary of the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWIA) Indigenous Fashion show.
Take a look at our favorite pieces in our Flickr gallery.
The show puts the work of 2022 Native American Treasure honoree Virgil Ortiz front and center, with three imposing Recon Watchmen costumes. No, it’s not runway fashion. But these futuristic sci-fi ensembles from the year 2180 are made for a film where protectors travel back in time to help the New Mexico pueblos successfully fight their opressors in the Revolt of 1680.
Ortiz (Cochiti Pueblo) combines film, fabric, headresses, and history to tell the story of a real-life Native revolution that Pueblo kids never learned in their New Mexican history classes. Look close at the awesome printed silk cloaks, lamé “armor”, and dramatic sculpted masks of these dramatic Native superheroes.
Next, you see how Native artists combined art and fashion from the mid-20th century until now.
Several historic pieces are by the godfather of Native American contemporary fashion (and early leader of IAIA), Lloyd Kiva New (Cherokee), who had a successful contemporary line in Scottsdale in the 1940s and1950s.
The clothes in this exhibition feature buttons and clasps made by Charles Loloma, a Hopi innovator in contemporary Native jewelry, who also had a shop in Scottsdale and joined New at IAIA in the Sixties. Lucky that collectors saved these gems for us.
The rest of the work in the exhibition represents the 2000s, primarily three types – ensembles taking a luxurious haute-couture approach, wearable social commentary, and sly conceptual art-as-fashion installations.
The 2000 embroidered, appliqued wool “Chilkat” cape by Pamela Baker (Tlingit/Haida) is regal enough to wear at any black-tie affair.
The same for Orlando Dugi’s (Dine’) 2018 feathered and beaded evening dress with a subtle golden eagle and touches of sparkling corn pollen. Dugi is a self-taught couturier, who meticulously applies each bead and feather himself.
Two dramatic red-carpet dresses by Lesley Hampton (Anishinaabe) that have appeared at recent Emmy and Golden Globe Award events are reminders of the inroads being made by Native Americans artists in the entertainment sector.
Among the most dramatic social-commentary work, Canadian design team Decontie & Brown (Penobscott Nation) has two attention-grabbers – a “wedding dress” offering the wearer protective spikes from unwanted advances and radiating power-feathers, and the “I Am A Reflection…” mirrored man’s coat. Absorbed in the kaleidoscope of the coat’s reflected light, viewers contemplate Decontie & Brown’s message as they marvel at the visual magic.
The elegant embroidered cashmere shift by Sho Sho Esquiro (Kaska Dena/Cree) has delicate somber black wings fluttering across the back. But these are paired with a front shouting the savage message of 20th-century Indian boarding school government policy. Beautiful but chilling.
Anita Fields (Osage) is represented by a suspended fashion installation in the center of main gallery – a wildly oversized embroidered top hat and wedding coat titled “It’s In Our DNA, It’s Who We Are.” Intertwined strands are emblazoned on the front; images of the unfortunate treaty her tribe signed in 1808 line the inside.
Outside the main gallery, MoCNA has invited Mohawk multimedia artist Skawennati to create a digital mural and installation of her “Activist Avatars,” cyber-protesters modeling a virtual clothing line. Multiple screens of social-justice protesters in power-to-the-people cammo and calico march toward viewers in the MoCNA screening room to an energetic Native hip-hop track.
Many of the artists represented in this show – Patricia Michaels, Jason Baerg, Jamie Okuna, Sho Sho Esquiro, and others – were featured in this year’s Indigenous Fashion show. Watch the 2022 SWIA Fashion Designers runway videos here.