The work is often referred to as naïve, primitive or self-taught and often left out of exhibitions around the world, but for one exhibit some 50 artists from around the world including Indigenous Peoples from Brazil, Mexico, and the United States have the chance to showcase their work through October 21.
The exhibit Histoires de voir: Show and Tell at the non-profit Fondation Cartier in Paris, France welcomes a surprising mix of artists showcasing more than 400 works while launching a debate about naïve, traditional, primitive, or premier art.
At the exhibit opening on May 15, artists discussed the notion of archaic, popular, or “savage” art, as emphasized by Virgil Ortiz from New Mexico.
“…Naïve sounds better then savage,” Ortiz said, remembering one of his past shows.
The exhibit investigates the status and production of artists coming from tribal, or traditional societies and whether they should be considered as art or crafts?
Another question the artists hoped to answer was how does an uninformed public apprehend the artwork of societies, or cultures, not yet represented by the contemporary artistic institution?
“I wished to give space to neglected art work that deserves to be shown, as their authors are important artists,” explains Hervé Chandes, director of the Fondation. “I organized the show without a rigid protocol, according to a sensitive approach. At the beginning, I wanted to call it Cry From the Heart. As to me, the exhibition is about a cry from the artist’s hearts – and mine.”
Histoires de voir, a French idiomatic expression that translates to “stories to be seen,” relates best to the Brazilian shaman Iba. The last of a long lineage of shamans (pagés) from Amazonia, he received his initiation to the traditional ayahuasca songs through his father. Ayahuasca songs, or medicine songs, are said to have a therapeutic value, leading the individual to another level of counsciousness and harmony. Fearing that those initiatic stories would disappear, he decided to tape his father, to memorize the songs. He then asked his disciples and family to draw them, while he was singing them.
This is how, for the first time, a visual encyclopedia of the Huni Xui (Kaxinawa), mythology, and cosmogony, was born – an astonishing series of colorful paintings that begs the question: should that representation be labeled as naïve, primitive, or traditional?
What is the unconscious weight of past colonialism, in the appreciation of art?
“An object, sold on a market place, is called craft,” Chandés said. “The minute it is exhibited in a museum, it becomes art: so who decides? The object? The geography? The public? I think that the visitors should decide, and make their own opinion, whether it is naïve, or Folk art. … As we decided to show that work; so it is now up to the public, to take position.”
As for a large public, the so-called “traditional” art is often confused with crafts, insists Laurence Graffin, a Guarani art collector. “A buyer once asked me, ‘would you make a price for this group of pieces?’ I was shocked and told her, ‘but those are not crafts, but art.’” The diversity of work in the exhibition addresses those issues, to which the presence of Native artists gave some answers.
Ortiz, a Cochiti Pueblo artist, who was taught by his mother during early childhood, fabricated his first pottery at the age of six, later collaborating with fashion designer Dona Karan, for whom he created a collection based on his traditional design. “I have always been interested in fashion, and started to travel at 16, to Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Paris. … Where I discovered the boutiques. But unable to afford them, I decided to make my own. And in 2003, I worked for Dona Karan, as she had found inspiration in my pottery designs; adapting my pottery to her clothing, I got known in the fashion world,” he said.
Ortiz’s works that compile the Vertigo exhibit are on display as part of Show and Tell.
His story is an emblematic example of how “traditional” art evolves towards a contemporary representation, in an era of globalization: is this adaptability of esthetics inherent to Native art?
According to Guarani filmmaker Ariel Ortega during the opening discussion, “Guaranis have a huge ability to adapt.” Ortega’s movies reveal the life of Guarani communities, with a deep insight on their reality from land issues to spirituality, education, and Guarani’s transition to modernity. Questioning the elders, following the children in the woods, or women selling their crafts in his home town, in Brazil, the Jesuit archeological site, Sao Miguel das Missoes, Ortega’s work pursues a definite goal: to raise the national, and international awareness to the Guaranis present needs and claims.
In his striking documentary, The Bicycles of Nhanderu, he unveils the intimate and unseen spiritual aspects of his culture: “We, elders, are the bicycles of God,” confides one of them.
“I want to show, with my films, how the Guaranis live their spirituality, and the creation of the world through our vision. So I listen to the elders, and tape them; as they will die, and we have to keep their stories,” Ortega said. “I am preparing a documentary about my grandfather, Dionicio Duarte; he is 92 years old, and has so much wisdom. A very important spiritual leader in Argentina, he fought for Indian rights.”
Such a philosophical, poetical, political approach, in an artistic process, was a surprise to the audience: during the panels, Iba, Ortega, Ortiz, and the other artists, from Haiti, Brazil freely confronted their views, sharing their relation to nature, the respect towards “the spirits of the woods,” the elders wisdom, and the impact of the philosophical dimension, on their creation, underlined by Ortiz, “before doing any art work, we pray.” Resilience and resistance, the right to the lands, to the cultures, were also discussed. Can all of those issues be addressed through art?
“I understood that we had to change our non-material heritage into a material one by transposing the songs into drawings, to transmit our vision,” Iba said. ”As those healing songs have been there for a very long time. But they cannot travel – with our drawings, the whites can learn about us. Those drawings allow us to maintain our Huni Xui vision of the world, as practiced in the ayahuasca rites. This is our world’s creation. Taking ayahuasca, I see the genesis of the world.” To transmit his message clearly, Iba performed some of his ritual songs, for a fascinated audience.
But the fundamentals of listening were recalled by the youngest of all: 27-year-old Ortega, who, closing the round of debates, when asked his opinion, answered, “I will let the elders speak first. Silence is very important to the Guaranis: we must listen.”