Allan Houser, Chiricahua Apache Tribe, Warm Springs Band, was a prominent Native sculptor born to parents who had been held as prisoners of war by the U.S. for 27 years. During his long career, he produced nearly 1,000 sculptures that combined Native realism with abstract modernism. His works are being featured in a presentation of modern, contemporary and traditional American Indian art, “Native Roots/Modern Form: Plants, Peoples and the Art of Allan Houser,” at Denver Botanic Gardens May 1 through Nov. 13.
Born Allan Capron Haozous in Oklahoma in 1914, Houser was the first child born into the community of Chiricahua Apaches following their release after government internment. He grew up on the family farm but left Oklahoma in 1934 to attend the Santa Fe Indian School, Santa Fe, N.M.
In 1962, Houser joined the faculty of the nascent Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, where he founded the school’s sculpture department, retiring in 1975 to create his own work and emerging as a major international figure with some 50 solo exhibitions in museums and galleries in the U.S., Europe and Asia. Houser died in 1994, not long after a trip to Washington, DC, where he presented First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton with a sculpture, “May We Have Peace,” that was accepted for installation at the Vice President’s residence.
Houser’s work “serves as a springboard for exploring the preservation of cultural and botanical heritage,” Brian Vogt, CEO of the Botanic Gardens, said. “Allan Houser is an important American artist who fuses traditional Native American subject matter with modern forms. His pieces allow visitors to feel the artist’s connection to the land and pride in his Native ancestry.”
In addition to the focus on Houser’s work, other contemporary artists will discuss issues facing American Indian artists and communities. Allan Houser’s son, Phillip Mangas Haozous, also a sculptor, will describe the influence his father’s art had on his work. Daniel Wildcat, Muscogee, professor of American Indian Studies at Haskell Indian Nations University, will discuss his recent book, Red Alert! Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge, and Truman Lowe, Ho-Chunk, a prominent artist and the first curator of contemporary art at the National Museum of the American Indian, will talk about Native Modernism.
Others scheduled to speak during the exhibition’s six-month run include Ryan Rice, Mohawk, artist and chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, Santa Fe, N.M., Nancy Mithlo, Chiricahua Apache, assistant professor of art history and American Indian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Roxanne Swentzell, Santa Clara, sculptor and ceramicist, co-founder of the Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute on the Santa Clara Pueblo, N.M. For dates and times, visit the Contemporary Perspectives page at the Denver Botanic Gardens website.
Guided walks through the Botanic Gardens led by the featured speakers precede or follow the lectures held on the fourth Wednesday of each month, May through October.
In addition to the outdoors exhibits of Houser’s sculpture are Native traditional artists who do carving, basketmaking, weaving, and other crafts as well as contemporary artists in an indoor gallery exhibit. The Botanic Gardens partnered with the International Institute for Resource Management to present a year-long film series highlighting Indigenous voices and issues from around the world.
The call went out to the Denver Indian community for members who could provide expertise in connection with the Indigenous-themed displays, some of which involve the existing Sacred Earth section of the Botanic Gardens, designed with input from local Native people.
It was anticipated that a core part of the exhibits would be “elders who can talk to us about the ethnobotanical uses of plants and their knowledge of cultural preservation,” said Kim Manajek, manager of exhibitions and art collections at the Botanic Gardens.
Although the Indigenous exhibitions are of arts and horticulture, “driving them is cultural preservation” to retain Native knowledge that is being lost, particularly in urban areas, she said.
The Sacred Earth garden creates an environment similar to that of the wider Colorado Plateau and includes such plants as sunflowers, melons, corn, and mountain mahogany.