Indigenous fashion takes center stage in Santa Fe
SANTA FE — On a recent visit to her native Western Canada, fashion curator and scholar Amber-Dawn Bear Robe came across her father’s clothes in a museum exhibit. The item of clothing had been his ceremonial dance dress when he was a boy, and now it was enclosed in a glass display case. “It’s a feeling of deep sadness that I can’t explain because it speaks to another story of why this piece is in the museum,” Bear Robe told Hyperallergic. “It was probably sold for a dollar, but my grandparents needed the money.”
Bear Robe worked overtime on a big reversal of this story. She is the founding director of the Southwest Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA) Native Fashion Show, an eight-year-old tradition that annually closes the Santa Fe Indian Market, the largest Native American art festival in the world.
This year, in honor of Indian Market’s centenary, Bear Robe is organizing Aboriginal fashion art, a concurrent exhibition of historic and contemporary Native fashion for the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA). When Hyperallergic visited, Bear Robe felt a conceptual back and forth between fashion show and exhibition, charting the considerable narrative ground she would like to cover.
“The one overriding element, the one solid thing across Canada and the United States, is that Native American design is the original design of this land,” Bear Robe said. “Kill a seal, clean out the intestines and sew them together to make a waterproof jacket – you don’t get more high fashion than that.” In this regard, she was disappointed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2021 exhibition In America: a fashion lexiconwho hosted the museum’s gala, presented only one Native American designer.
Bear Robe’s recent scholarly work has focused on direct connections between Native American design and a broader American aesthetic. She explores the subject in a forthcoming article for the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. “In the 1920s, there was a strong push for American designers to visit museum collections — historic and ‘primitive’ arts, including Native American textiles and pottery — to inform a uniquely American design language,” Bear Robe said. about his research. “It was like the ABCs and the 123s on how to own our cultures.”
Establishing the presence and external influence of Native American fashion is only the first phase of Bear Robe’s curatorial approach. She explained that focusing on these larger elements can risk portraying Indigenous culture as monolithic. Pushing it further, Bear Robe leads conversations with designers to unravel micro-regional narratives that aren’t necessarily written. Materials, colors, patterns, and patterns can tie a design to a particular tribe or, like the beads on her father’s dancing dress, even to a specific family.
“That, for me, is the advantage I have. It’s not that outward look; I know these designers and have worked with many of them. I want it to be the absolute opposite of anthropological, static art,” Bear Robe said.
This year’s fashion events at Indian Market will feature capsules and full collections from 14 designers on August 20-21. Bear Robe envisions the runway as a rustling, stomping timeline of contemporary Indigenous fashion legacies. Among the participants, she identifies a trio of fashion “matriarchs”: Dorothy Grant, Himikalas Pamela Baker and Patricia Michaels.
Grant is known for her bold prints that combine Haida Nation designs with formline style, and Baker blends First Nations aesthetics from across Canada’s west coast in her fine mixed-media jewelry. Michaels, who appeared in two seasons of Project track, hand dyed and painted sheer fabrics to create haute couture creations with flowing silhouettes.
Their work influenced a later generation of designers, whom Bear Robe dubbed “the innovators”. Like Grant, Jamie Okuma and Lauren Good Day are known for their original prints: Okuma combines natural motifs with geometric patterns, and Good Day references ledger designs and textile designs. Ashley Calling Bull and Jessica Matten are among the models walking the runway.
“Then there’s another element to it, which is the artists who really blur the line between art and fashion. They bring the performative element,” Bear Robe said. She calls this circle “the breakers of rules” and includes visual artists-turned-designers Catherine Blackburn, Jason Baerg, and Skawennati. Blackburn’s elaborate beadwork has once graced the Indian Market runway; its New Age Warriors collection premiered in 2019 and became a successful traveling exhibition soon after. This year, she adds dynamic new designs to the clean silhouettes of collaborating designer Melanie LeBlanc.
The exhibit at MoCNA, which is a block from the epicenter of the Indian market on Santa Fe Plaza, is a tighter arrangement with even more ground to unfold. In Aboriginal fashion artBear Robe will trace the arc of Native American fashion history through approximately 28 looks.
She had just returned from a trip to Phoenix, where she had purchased pieces by historic artist and designer Lloyd Kiva New from a fashion merchant. Kiva New electrified fashionable mid-century silhouettes with playful patterns inspired by Indigenous culture and adorned its signature leather handbags with metal buckles bearing Cherokee iconography.
Bear Robe also confirmed the looks of living legends Virgil Ortiz, famous for his futuristic black and white prints reminiscent of Cochiti Pueblo pottery designs, and Orlando Dugi, whose shimmering embroidery and metallic fabrics evoke Diné design stories. She had a harder time getting work from some of the younger designers: One piece from Okuma’s series of hand-beaded Christian Louboutin heels has so far eluded her, but she was on the trail of a collector private who could lend him a pair.
“Specifically with the exhibit, I have the envy of curators at these big institutions that have a lot more money than MoCNA,” Bear Robe said. “They may have more money, but I have access to it.” She’s been pulling the strings more aggressively lately, as interest in Indigenous fashion grows and other conservatives enter the scene. Recently, Crystal Bridges expanded its collection of Indigenous fashion, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art is looking to correct its previous blind spots with a second edition of In America.
“Many of the key pieces that I wanted to include, museums won’t loan them out,” Bear Robe said. “Some of these pieces first appeared in the SWAIA fashion show, but I can’t bring them back to the show, which is so disheartening.” She quickly clarified that she was thrilled to see Indigenous designers entering leading collections. It’s just hard for him to imagine clothes kept in archives when they were once activated by Native people. “Just let me have it for the track, then you can take it,” she said.