First Nations Curation: An interview with Alexandra Buffalohead

First Nations Curation: An interview with Alexandra Buffalohead

Published February 5th, 2020 by Juleana Enright

A 2019/2020 Emerging Curators Fellow, Buffalohead talks about Revitalizing Symbols, a group show on view through Feb. 14th

Currently on view at Artistry in Bloomington, Revitalizing Symbols features work from 13 Indigenous and First Nations artists exploring identity and the act of reclamation through multiple media, stories, perspectives, and layers. Curated by Emerging Curators Institute fellow Alexandra Buffalohead, the show focuses on visibility and representation and is the first of four exhibitions organized through ECI’s newly developed program for upcoming regional curators.

I caught up with curator Alexandra Buffalohead to talk about visibility within the local arts scene and how the artists in Revitalizing Symbols are seeking to redefine traditional expressions of language, land, identity, and art through a modern narrative. 

Revitalizing Symbols, installation view. Photo by Nicole Thomas.

Juleana Enright: What is your background and how did you get involved in the local art world? 

Alexandra Buffalohead: I have been drawn to music and art since I was younger in middle and high school. I completed my Bachelor of Arts from Augsburg University with a major in Studio Arts. After graduating and being overconfident I found it challenging to find a job with just a bachelor’s degree and returned to school for an Associates Degree in Graphic Design. I worked for a few non-profit Native organizations and started an Art History Master’s program and museum studies certificate at the University of St. Thomas. Half way through my program I accepted a job as the Arts and Cultural Engagement Manager at the Native American Community Development Institute and All My Relations Arts Gallery, and I believe this has submerged me more into the local art world. I’ve been playing in a band with my parents called Bluedog since I was younger. I used to feel like I had to separate the two or pick one or the other. Until recently meeting other musicians and artists who do both fluidly, I have learned that I shouldn’t try stick to one, but to encourage both.

From ledger artwork, textiles, and paintings, to video and animation, the visual language is really present in this exhibition. Why was it important for you to incorporate such a complex array of different practices and media into this exhibit? 

It was important for me to share the complexities of these artists who are doing this work in a positive, empowering way. I wanted to try to support as many artists within capacity, intriguing audiences’ curiosity to learn more while combating stereotypes of art created by First Nations people.

Tell us more about what you wanted to convey to the viewer through the exhibit’s title, Revitalizing Symbols?

I wanted to convey that this is something to show a place of strength, power, survival, and resistance that First Nations people are doing, to emphasize our existence and to celebrate these artists, and that there are other artists doing revitalization through their work in telling their stories (with consideration of who the work is intended to be seen by). Revitalization that is happening with different Nations’ languages, in reference to land, and specifically symbols. Since Indigenous North American art has been canonized by European academia, I wanted to convey that there is a wide range of what artists are doing with symbols, and in their own ways of creating their own iconography and challenge this with Indigenous methodologies. 

I wanted to show that there are artists who are literally revitalizing cultural symbols or storytelling, but also on their terms, with abstraction. For example, (with the multi-generational puzzle-like wood abstract work by Ojibwe musician/artist) Briand Morrison, who — though using different mediums — finds inspiration from his father, George Morrison’s abstraction work. Or Haley Greenfeather English, who leaves it up to the audience to use their experiences of viewing and understanding to interpret her paintings. 

One of your personal goals for this exhibit was to work with as many artists as possible, selecting artists who came from a variety of different career levels, Tribal Nations, rural and urban communities. What was the research process like for you and how did you discover artists you invited to participate?

I feel like due to time, I was only able to half-achieve this goal. The research process has been ongoing since my academic career started and has been created and interwoven from relationship-building with the artists from my graduate research program, to my work at All My Relations Arts and Northern Spark, and with my side career as a musician.

Through a travel grant I was able to visit Chicago where I met Debra Yepa-Pappan and Andrea Carlson. Both of whom I was fortunate to meet again at the Native Art Studies Association Conference (NAASA) — held in Minneapolis in October 2019 — where I also met Holly Young, who I had been following on social media. 

In 2016, I was in Santa Fe for a convening and went to the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) museum. There, I was blown away and inspired by a senior student exhibition from IAIA. One of the colorful murals was created by Haley Greenfeather English. 

A friend, Hannah Smith, introduced me to Jaida Grey Eagle who had just completed her BFA at IAIA. Jaida shared with me beautiful photographs from her Winyan series, and at the time I felt the Revitalizing Symbols exhibition was missing not only photography, but portraiture.

Jehra Patrick from the Emerging Curator’s Institute and Law Warschaw Gallery introduced me to Nicholas Galanin, who had a solo exhibition this past fall at Law Warschaw. I had the honor of giving him a mini-tour of Minneapolis and my work at All My Relations Gallery. 

I have to credit All My Relations Arts and colleagues for introducing me to Chholing Taha, Jonathan Thunder, and other artists. One of the first solo exhibitions I had ever gone to with my mom and that really moved me was by Jim Denomie.

Jim Denomie, Standing Rock-Bitch, oil on canvas.

The use of symbolism has played a significant historical role in Native American and Indigenous art. How do you see the artists in this exhibit reviving traditional mediums into a modern narrative? 

I think this is a complicated question. I personally see and interpret all of the artists in this exhibition reviving traditional mediums into modern narrative. In Jaida Grey Eagle’s Winyan series, she asked for the consent of the artists and for the artists to choose how they were photographed and what objects they were photographed with, while also having audio recordings of the artists telling their stories. In Holly Young’s work, she visited different institutional collections, and is inspired by the objects she has spent time with. Through her research, she creates and honors her Dakota ancestors using items they used, while also incorporating modern fashion as an influence.

How have the concepts of intergenerational transference of knowledge and the ancestral history our bodies hold shaped your practice? 

I am honored to be able to do this work, and feel this is a way of honoring my ancestral history by working with these artists. I feel blessed that my daytime job encourages the support of empowering artists at different ages and tries to create space for these artists. This is a practice that is challenging, and something I want to try my best in applying as I’m able to. With the panel for this exhibition, and even in the curation, I tried to be mindful in including individuals from different nations and at different ages. 

What has it been like working with the Emerging Curators Institute? How has this opportunity led to deepening your relationship to the role of curator? 

It’s been great working with the Emerging Curators Institute and with my mentor Michelle Westmark Wingard. It’s been challenging and empowering. I am really appreciative of the model that they are striving for, which is a non-traditional educational cohort and collective with efforts to public access. Every ECI public or cohort meeting influences my curatorial practice and perspective, and carries over to my work at All My Relations and NACDI. 

It has been great to not only grow and see my cohort members grow, but the program as well and the incredible networking opportunities it’s presented.

This opportunity has reinforced to me that the research and learning component is ongoing, and reinforced my understanding of the shared work that goes into exhibitions, and the importance of all of the contributing roles. 

Jaida Grey Eagle, Mikayla Patton, photograph from the artist's Winyan series.

In your curatorial practice, a common theme is increasing visibility for Indigenous North American artists and working towards creating space to present a cultural narrative through art. As far as the local scene is concerned, what steps do you see to continue this work? What strides do you feel have been made and what challenges do we as a community still face in Indigenous representation? 

Steps I see needed are funding opportunities for the artists, continued support for programs like ECI — to help develop spaces to bring artists — and for professional development for the art communities together. I feel like there have been great strides made just in this past year towards Indigenous representation, but it can’t just end here. It needs to be ongoing support. First Nations people are still misrepresented in popular culture. In the Twin Cities, there is support needed for artists in terms of affordable studio spaces and grants that are designed, evaluated, and structured more inclusively, with Indigenous methodologies in mind. On a larger scale, with this upcoming census, not only it is important that Urban and Reservation communities work together to share the importance of making sure Indigenous people are counted accurately, but that we are counted accurately so that funding to support programs for our neighborhoods and communities is continued. 

Why do you think it’s important for members of the community to view this exhibition and what reflection do you hope its attendees will take away from the experience? 

I feel it’s important for members of the First Nations community to view this exhibition because it shows ourselves represented in positive ways, in as many ways as possible. Hopefully it will inspire others to create and share their work to continue to increase the amount of artists. It is important to see our stories told from us, from Indigenous people.

Alexandra Buffalohead. Photo by Greene Photography.

Revitalizing Symbols runs through February 14th at the Inez Greenberg Gallery at Artistry. Bloomington, 1800 W. Old Shakopee Blvd., Bloomington. Free to the public. Gallery hours: M-F 8am - 10pm, Sat 9am - 5pm, Sun 1 - 10pm

To learn more about Emerging Curators Insitute, visit their website.

Banner image: Jaida Grey Eagle, HolyElk and Bernie Lafferty (detail), photograph.

We can't do it without you.

Help keep independent arts journalism alive in the Twin Cities.