Heather Ahtone Brings Southwest Art Criticism to Oneida

An Event Review by: Larry P. Madden heather athone

This past month the good folks at the Oneida Arts Program invited yours truly to hear a presentation on Southwestern art criticism by Ms. Heather Ahtone (Choctaw/Chickasaw). She’s the curator of Native American and Non-Western Art at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma and her attentive audience ranged from educators and scholars to the lucky few who heard we had a great lecturer in our midst, as was this reviewer’s case.

Ahtone’s most enlightening bits were on the analysis of cultural pottery from the Hopi and the meaning of the pottery and symbols. Her intent was to show her listeners what she does so we can employ the applicable parts to our own Woodland art. She focused on four key areas for review: Materiality (the medium used to create the art), Metaphor/Symbolism, Kincentricity (a newly coined term meaning the relationship between people and inanimate objects), and Temporality (meaning the work’s relationship to time).

To exercise and practice the art of critique, the group would review a painting and discuss the significance of style, culture and their interrelationship. Different sets of eyes found decidedly alternate stories within the painting and the roundtable discussion about the subject was informative, as shared views of culture and art added to the whole experience. At the midpoint, a fine lunch was provided in the social area of the hall: a delicious stew, with Oneida white corn, beans, and cornbread, followed by a dessert.

After lunch activities involved a local Native Writers group of which I’m a part of, discussing our previous reviews of the painting “Colors of the Cottonwoods,” by well-known Oneida artist Bruce King. Ms. Ahtone’s personable demeanor and warmth of heart was evident as she discussed our work with us. Her kind words concerning our critiques were both interesting and encouraging and her ability to articulate the ways to approach a work was a pleasure to experience.

I was thrilled to do some follow-up readings of Ms. Ahtone’s study of artifacts and museum pieces and I was not surprised to read more proof that Ms. Ahtone has dedicated her energy to supporting the larger Oklahoma tribal community. Ahtone states in one of her articles that, “Reciprocity is largely an act of gratitude by an artist for their cultural heritage…By using traditional art forms and designs, artists are actively participating in the continuation of their cultures.” Which, of course, is something Natives all know, but Ahtone is helping to make sure academics realize making a clay pot or a birch bark basket isn’t just for function, art, or culture—it’s for all three.

Being exposed to this kind of talent, especially from someone with a Native perspective, allows one to refine the tools used to analyze the Indigenous aesthetic. This reviewer hopes that Ms. Ahtone will be back in Wisconsin again soon and that the good folks at the Oneida Nation Arts Program keep inviting more people like her to visit us.

Larry P. Madden (Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Wisconsin) was born and raised in the Sturgeon Bay area. A recent graduate of CMN , he enjoys the Powwow trail and strives to maintain balance on the red road.