Fellow Challenged Perceptions of 'Indian'

Aug. 12, 2015

I have been back in Tucson for about 60 hours now.

My travel day was intense — probably more stressful than the original road trip to the East Coast. Operating on no sleep and learning that my shuttle driver had overslept, thus making me late to my early morning flight, was frustrating. With the flight rescheduled, I nodded off about 20 times for five minutes at a time … on my bags … in the airport. Yes, I was that person.

After a 22-hour travel day, I was reunited with my sister Cydney. Although I was incredibly sad to leave the East Coast and all of the wonderful people I had met, it was so great to see her smiling face again. We spent the subsequent day doing nothing together. It was nice to reflect and recoup after an intense last week of the Peabody Essex Museum's Native American Fellowship and my crazy travel day.

Already, I am very much missing the other three fellows — Alexandra Nahwegahbow, Halena Kapuni-Reynolds and Jordan Dresser. After living and working with them for 10 weeks, we became family, so much so that we had "family dinners" almost every Sunday evening after going to Devereux Beach for our "Sunday Funday Beach Days."

Fellows (from left) Jordan Dresser, Alex Nahwegahbow, Ashley Tsosie-Mahieu and Halena Kapuni-Reynolds. (Photo: Kathy Tarantola)

We also traveled to Boston together twice, once as a part of our fellowship program and another time on our own to do a "museum crawl," attempting to go to as many museums as possible in one day. We made it to only three.

During my fellowship at PEM, I found an equilibrium between serious work (see my previous column) and seriously fun work.

The bulk of my work for the summer involved the upcoming Native Fashion Now exhibition, featuring designs by contemporary Native American artists from what is now the United States and Canada. There are around 150 total pieces in the exhibit, including the typical items you’d expect to see — boots and shoes, dresses and skirts, and pants and T-shirts — and other, less traditional objects, such as an arrow quiver bag, parasols and skateboard decks.

Native Fashion Now, which consists of six galleries, may be surprising for some, namely those who expect to see stereotypical Indian imagery in every item in the exhibit. The exhibit includes the work of Patricia Michaels (Taos Pueblo) of Project RunwayOrlando Dugi (Diné ), Alano Edzerza (Tahltan), Elizabeth James-Perry (Aquinnah Wampanoag), Pat Pruitt (Laguna Pueblo) and groundbreaking Native designers such as the late Lloyd Kiva New (Cherokee), often praised as the father of contemporary Native fashion.

Because all of the pieces were created after 1950 (excepting an outfit styled by fashion maven Iris Apfel), with the vast majority designed in the past five years, a cosmopolitan atmosphere permeates the overall exhibition. With materials as diverse as holographic lambskin, Mylar, stingray leather, Tahitian pearls and vinyl, Native Fashion Now designers deviate from the feathers, beads and buckskin that a mainstream audience may expect in anything "Indian." Instead, these designers elevate Native fashion to a provocative and revered art form, thus broadening and challenging perceptions of "Indian."

A low-tech prototype of PEM's Native Fashion Now moodboards. (Photo: Karen Kramer)

I was tasked with choosing mannequins for each of the ensembles in the show. During my second week of work, I went through PEM's mannequin inventory accumulated from former fashion exhibitions: "Rare Bird of Fashion: The Irreverent Iris Apfel" (2009-2010) and "Future Beauty: Avant-Garde Japanese Fashion" (2013-2014). After learning the differences in mannequin brands and studying how the forms were positioned, I helped my supervisor, Karen Kramer, select the mannequin that would best display each full outfit. 

With misguided images and ideas of Native peoples embedded in the social fabric of mainstream society, Native Fashion Now designers, through the vehicle of PEM, use their own fabrics, materials and creativity to express themselves, compelling viewers to rethink their ideas of contemporary Native peoples, communities and cultures.

Native Fashion Now is on view at PEM Nov. 21 through March 6, 2016. It then travels to the Portland Art Museum, the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa and the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian in New York City.

Also as a part of my fellowship, I was fortunate to travel with my supervisor to New York City one weekend. It was my first time there, and it was a whirlwind experience. We started off at the Museum of Arts and Design to see the "Ralph Pucci: The Art of the Mannequin" exhibition. We then ventured over to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the "China: Through the Looking Glass" fashion exhibition. The Met's exhibit was huge. There were so many incredible items on display, including to-die-for Valentino and Yves Saint Laurent dresses, exquisite headpieces tailored to 100 of the ensembles, and a dress made entirely of porcelain.

The PEM group (from Left) : Michelle Moon, Ashley Tsosie-Mahieu, Halena Kapuni-Reynolds, Alex Nahwegahbow, Jordan Dresser and Karen Kramer outside of PEM. (Photo: Kathy Tarantola)

All of the places we visited were sources of inspiration and research for the Native Fashion Now exhibition.

I was able to put my writing and editing skills to use for the Native fashion exhibit. A companion Native Fashion Now book will be released along with the exhibition. I reviewed the final versions of the book and made suggested edits, many of which were incorporated into the final version. I also wrote the first draft of the exhibit's tombstones, which are identification labels providing the most basic information about an object. I assisted in writing the first draft of the extended text labels, which provide more information about each gallery and interpret objects within the galleries.

Alex Nahwegahbow, Karen Kramer and Ashley Tsosie-Mahieu. (Photo: Kathy Tarantola)

Being trusted to do some of these major tasks gave me a strong sense of empowerment. Going to work every day was so fulfilling, knowing that I was making important contributions toward the Native Fashion Now exhibition. Although this was a short summer fellowship, in learning from Kramer about all things curatorial I truly experienced what it is like to be an assistant curator.

My experience at PEM is one that I’ll remember always. Not only a fantastic learning and professional experience, it was a time of growth and renewal. No matter how big or small the task, it was an honor to be a part of this exciting — and what I think will be a transformative — exhibition and educational experience.

Ashley Tsosie-Mahieu, a doctoral student in the UA's American Indian Studies program, was one of four students selected as a 2015 UANews student columnist. The columnist initiative was launched in June by UANews and provided students the opportunity to share insights about the work and research they did over the summer in various parts of the U.S. and abroad. It was the UA's 100% Engagement initiative in action, and the experiences will prepare the students to be real-world ready upon graduation.