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Fashion and art collide to awaken native culture

A kaleidoscope of color swirls across the sight line—pure brilliance against a backdrop of snowy white walls and stark white mannequins. Suspended from the ceilings is abstract art, and exotic designs drape gracefully across the statuary.

Shelves of Converse shoes line the walls while fashionable gowns and contemporary clothing set the stage for the newest representation of the modern awakening of Native American culture. The showing illustrates inspiration from the heart of the past with a new approach from today.

The critically acclaimed exhibition “Native Fashion Now” from the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts, is presented by the Philbrook Museum of Art from Oct. 2 through Jan. 8, 2017.

Visitors are immersed in the rich realm of Native American fashion by indigenous designers from across the United States and Canada dating from the 1950s to today. The Philbrook is honored to be the only museum in the Central United States for this traveling exhibition.

“Native American art and culture are often perceived as a phenomena of the past, or just mere replicas. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Contemporary Native fashion designers are dismantling and upending familiar motifs, adopting new forms of expression and materials, and sharing their vision of Native culture and design with a global audience,” said Karen Kramer, PEM Curator of Native American Art and Culture to the Philbrook.

A dramatic stage is set for the modern exhibition as platforms guide the eye to a projection of models walking a runway to showcase contemporary Native art in a way which celebrates “where fashion meets art, cultural identity, politics and commerce.” It emphasizes the flourishing spirit of fashion—from haute couture to street wear. Over 70 contemporary fashion designers contributed work to four sections: “Path-breakers,” “Resistors,” “Activators” and “Provocateurs.”

Native American tribes are seeing a rebirth of interests in their culture and as a result their arts, stories, and rituals are gaining more attention.  The recent revival sparked a cultural appropriation discussion due to mass marketing of trendy “Native American” printed fabrics. Oklahoman beadwork artist Faith Harjo from the Pawnee, Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek), and Cheyenne tribes said people can be taught traditions and customs, but it “doesn’t make up for what comes from the heart.”

“Our [Native American] inspirations come from our ancestors who walked the earth before us. We now create pieces that incorporate elements that are unique to our families, tribes, and communities. There are 562 federally recognized tribes within the United States and no artist or design is the same. That’s what makes Native fashion special. We really put our heart and soul and our culture into what we create,” said Harjo.

Orlando Dugi, a fashion designer featured at “Native Fashion Now,” sees the beauty all around him and gathers his creativity from the stars and universe because he holds them sacred. In his 2012 “Desert Heat” collection, the models wear feathered capes, and gowns of silks, 24k gold beads, with porcupine quills in their hair, modeled after the yucca plants seen in the desert. He chose hand-painted silks to represent the fires in California during the time. When the material moves, it looks like a blazing sky.

Dugi grew up on a reservation, and in the summertime his father would drop him off at his grandparents’ ranch. At night, he would lay out on a mattress in the open air and watch the stars as they taught him the constellations in his first language of Navajo. He sang “star songs” with them as they taught him the “Star-spangled Banner.” Years later, he incorporated his experiences in nature and traditions from his tribe into his artwork. He started beading because stars were such a big influence on his life and culture.

“When I first started designing fashion accessories, I was doing beaded handbags, and I chose beading because you have to be out at night under the stars,” said Dugi. “When you use beads it looks like the universe. It looks like you’re looking at the sky, so all of that is incorporated into my designs.”

“Native Fashion Now” has a story behind each accessory, outfit and piece of jewelry while each of the four sections shines a spotlight on a new aspect of contemporary Native art. The designs are one-of-a kind, communicating cross-culturally the importance of every Native American tribe. For over 70 years, the Philbrook has provided the answer to the question: what is Native art?