We Are Native Women, a new exhibition at Rainmaker Gallery, is challenging perceptions of Native American culture through the striking, powerful and beautiful works of 12 indigenous artists

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death, in Gravesend, of Pocahontas – famous for her involvement with the English settlers in Jamestown, and probably the only Native American woman the majority of British people could name. The popular treatment of Pocahontas – most memorably perhaps by Disney – has propelled her to become the poster girl for Native American culture, and the way in which this figure (in fact and myth) has come to dominate our understanding, and eclipsed the numerous Native American women whose real lives are equally as worthy of our attention, is the motivation for a new exhibition just opened on Coldharbour Road.

We Are Native Women

Sierra Edd’s ‘Identity of Stars and Stripes’ shows the layers and complexities of Native identity in the 21st century

Aiming to move beyond Pocahontas, and release her from the symbolic duty of standing for all women of this indigenous people, We Are Native Women highlights their strength and diversity through the recent work of 12 contemporary aboriginal North American artists, hailing from Alaska down to New Mexico. Including painting, printmaking, photography and basket weaving, its artworks depict women of all ages – strong, powerful, nurturing, caring, vulnerable, desirable, provocative, dangerous, real and even supernatural.

“I fell in love with the land first of all,” says co-curator and Rainmaker Gallery owner Joanne Prince of her interest in Native American art and culture, which began while she was visiting family in Canada in the early 1980s. “Having grown up in a big city, the forests of British Columbia were my first true realisation of the interconnectedness of all life and it naturally followed that I was drawn to the people of that land.”

Jo founded Rainmaker in 1991 and brought her gallery to Bristol permanently in 2008, having made it her life’s work to provide an authentic Native American Indian voice in the UK. Dividing her time between Bristol and the States, she has seen, first-hand, how certain issues, such as the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy of recent years, have impacted on the perception of the people.

“The #NoDAPL movement has brought awareness to the struggles that Native American communities still face on their lands”

“The #NoDAPL movement has brought awareness to the struggles that Native American communities still face on their lands,” she explains. “Water protectors used social media to reach out across the world and we saw thousands of people from hundreds of tribes come together in a show of unity and resistance to ecocide and corporate greed.

We Are Native Women

‘Wakeah’ – Cara Romero’s vision of the ‘Indian’ dolls she wished for as a child

“When environmental disasters happen, they hit indigenous communities first and hardest because of the widespread disregard of their human rights by governments and corporations, and the Dakota pipeline is a typical example of this attitude – but the determination of the people of Standing Rock to protect the Missouri river from contamination was witnessed the world over. Native Americans from all walks of life spoke out and were seen for who they actually are – spokespeople, lawyers, journalists, artists, film makers, medics, elders, children, teachers.”

It’s this real picture that Jo has always sought to share, creating opportunities for the British public to meet Native artists and experience indigenous populations through art. “The work we do is important because these exhibitions demonstrate that the reality of these cultures is far more fascinating and exciting than the reductive ideas about Native America that predominate worldwide,” says Jo. “Cherokee artist Shan Goshorn states that “dooming a person’s existence to that of a stereotype is worse than never having lived at all,” so in other words, our ignorance of individual humanity is a form of cultural genocide. Native Americans suffered the most extensive genocide in history and those that have survived should have the right to determine their own identities and not be expected to conform to the childish fantasies of others.”

We Are Native Women

‘Finding Her Helpers’ by Shelley Niro challenges stereotypically bleak images of Aboriginal women and looks at stories such as that of the Skywoman

The stereotype confronted in the current exhibition – that of Native American women – is one Jo feels infectiously passionate about breaking down. “It comes from media fabrications, initially in westerns and more recently in Disney cartoons,” she reflects. “In both instances, the portrayals are historical and dehumanising. Similarly there is a predominance of historic, staged and stoic sepia photographs. For this reason, people struggle to conceive of Native American women as real, contemporary, multi-faceted individuals.

“I see the 400th anniversary of the death of Pocahontas as an opportunity to raise the profile of all indigenous North American women,” she posits. “There are a number of ‘Pocahontas 2017’ events happening across the country throughout the year, all of which focus on her story, but I wanted to move the conversation beyond Pocahontas to the Native American women of today and others that came after her. We wanted this exhibition to be an accurate reflection of how Native Americans choose to portray themselves and each other; to show a broad range of women from girlhood to old age, traditional, contemporary, political, whimsical, beautiful and controversial, as portrayed by artists from across the continent.”

“…these exhibitions demonstrate that the reality of these cultures is far more fascinating and exciting than the reductive ideas about Native America that predominate worldwide…”

For Jo, it’s of paramount importance to choose contemporary artists of indigenous descent for her exhibitions – their individual identities directly and crucially influencing the way they portray their subjects. “For these artists, the people that they depict are not merely subject matter,” she explains. “They are friends, neighbours, family members, respected elders or ancestors, and there exists a level of honesty, trust and respect between artist and sitter that would not exist outside of the community.”

We Are Native Women

‘Ceci N’est Pas Une Indienne’ – a digital print on an antique ledger paper by Debra Yepa-Pappan – an artist of Jemez Pueblo and Korean descent

One particularly striking work by Santa Fe artist Cara Romero shows a young Comanche woman named Wakeah dressed in her finest dance regalia – representing years of skilled work and cultural significance – and photographed in a life-size doll box. Cara had remembered how, as a child, the dolls she saw in shops, which were meant to be ‘Indian’, had no relevance or resemblance to actual Native American cultures, so she created an image to represent the dolls she wished for as a child – ones that reflected the true richness, dignity and glamour of powwow culture shared by tribes today.

“I absolutely love everything that Cara Romero does and her latest piece Kaa – based on the idea of a female deity called Mud Woman, the spirit of the clay – is extraordinary,” enthuses Jo. “Kaa is a young woman from a long line of traditional Pueblo potters, so Cara painted her body with clay and overlaid an enlarged photograph that she took of an ancient Anasazi (ancestors of the Pueblo peoples) beaker. The designs that appear on her body are actually from the beaker itself.

“It is also a real privilege to have two exquisite baskets from Shan Goshorn’s Warrior Bloodline series, and I am moved by courageous self-portrait Am I Next? by the youngest artist in the exhibition – Navajo poet, filmmaker, artist and student at Brown University, Sierra Edd – who does research surrounding racial violence in border town communities outside the Navajo reservation.”

In the current global political climate, seeing the bigger picture and amplifying marginalised voices feels more important than ever – kudos to Rainmaker for continuing its mission to break the silence and put aside geographical distance in favour of unity.

We Are Native Women runs until 31 May; rainmakerart.co.uk

Featured image: ‘Kaa’ by Cara Romero – based on the idea of a female deity called Mud Woman, the spirit of the clay