Past Forward: Native American Art from Gilcrease Museum
February 16, 2024 - April 28, 2024
Past Forward: Native American Art from Gilcrease Museum showcases the unique formation of Gilcrease Museum’s exceptional Native collections and affirms this material as central to American art history. Surveying more than three thousand years of Indigenous art, principally from the heartland of the United States, the exhibition encompasses art historical, archeological, and archival works, allowing for exploration of visual motifs and shared knowledge systems across time and space.
By enlisting Indigenous aesthetic and philosophical frameworks to interpret the work, the exhibition also aims to amplify the voices of Native American peoples. American oilman Thomas Gilcrease (1890–1962), the founder of Gilcrease Museum, was of Muscogee (Creek) ancestry and sought to tell the story of the United States through art that emphasized Native cultures and the history of the American West. As scholars and curators from traditionally Eurocentric institutions increasingly embrace the imperative to foreground Native perspectives, Gilcrease Museum is distinct for having been shaped by the tastes and interests of an Indigenous collector who maintained personal relationships with a number of the Native artists whose works he acquired. Whereas Gilcrease Museum’s holdings of Western art by artists such as Charles Russell and Frederic Remington have been the focus of previous traveling exhibitions, Past Forward is the first to highlight the collection’s outstanding strength in Indigenous art, rooted in the connoisseurship of a Native philanthropist.
Past Forward takes a thematic approach to Native American art history, considering ways in which Indigenous artists across time have conceptualized and represented similar subjects. The exhibition is structured around transhistorical themes — visual abstraction, ceremony, sovereignty, and identity — each featuring two- and three-dimensional Indigenous objects ranging from ancient to contemporary. In all, the exhibition encompasses around sixty works ranging from prehistoric carved stones to contemporary paintings, from beaded clothing to clay pottery. A small selection of comparative works by Euro-American artists such as Russell and George Catlin helps to underline the distinctive visual languages found within Native art that form the exhibition’s primary focus.
In addition to offering an overview of Indigenous visual culture through highlights from Gilcrease Museum, Past Forward also amplifies the perspectives of Native community members, scholars, and artists through the exhibition’s multi-vocal interpretive program that features varied Indigenous perspectives. At a time when marginalized peoples across North America are uniting to magnify their voices in the fight for sociopolitical reform, it is crucial to provide spaces in which members of these communities can present their own histories, cultures, and modes of expression. Spotlighting works created and collected by Native individuals, Past Forward: Native American Art from Gilcrease Museum helps contribute to the widening narrative of American art history. The exhibition is co-organized by the American Federation of Arts and Gilcrease Museum.
In conjunction with Past Forward, the Ackland will offer public programs and interpretive materials created in partnership with the Ackland’s curators, campus and community representatives of Indigenous communities, and museum colleagues from the North Carolina Museum of Art, the Nasher Museum, and the Museum of the Southeast American Indian at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.