Originally from Siksika Nation in Alberta, Canada, Amber-Dawn Bear Robe is a curatorial phenomenon. She holds MA’s in both American Indian Studies and Art History and is currently Assistant Faculty of Art History in the Museum Studies department at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her latest curatorial projects range from organizing the annual Contemporary Indigenous fashion show for the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA) to curating an exhibition for The Tweed Museum in Duluth, Minnesota titled Blood Memoirs: Exploring Individuality, Memory, and Culture through Portraiture. Oh, and she’s also a DJ. Amber-Dawn is constantly challenging the assumptions and stereotypes of the representation of Indigenous voices in the contemporary arts scene—how Native Art is curated, studied, and presented to the world. Here are three questions for Amber-Dawn:
2019 will be your fourth year designing, curating, and producing the Contemporary Indigenous Fashion Show in conjunction with Santa Fe’s Indian Market, SWAIA. Around for 96 years, SWAIA has successfully attracted visitors and collectors from around the world to experience, explore, and purchase traditional Native American Arts. Your fashion show is bold, transcendent, and presents a wildly different perspective on what Native American Art looks like, and how it can be presented to a global audience. Why you are drawn to Indigenous Fashion, and why shake things up at a traditional event like SWAIA?
This will actually be my sixth year producing the SWAIA fashion show (Southwestern Association for Indian Arts). The first one was in 2014 at Cathedral Park on the Santa Fe plaza. When I first moved to the area, Pasty Phillip, the Director of the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, (MoCNA) asked if I could organize a fashion show for the museum in 2013, which I titled Fashion Heat. I saw this as an extension of being an art curator, so I said yes, and I have been organizing fashion shows featuring Indigenous designers ever since.
I ended up creating two fashion shows for MoCNA. The second one was held at the El Dorado hotel, in partnership with, and during the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival. The event included the work of Wendy Red Star, and vintage Lloyd Kiva New designs. I next approached SWAIA about producing a fashion show for the annual Market and the show garnered instant attention, becoming greatly popular, and one of the most anticipated and attended events of Market. The first show was done with virtually no budget, with all involved (models, designers, hair & makeup etc.) donating their time and talent.
The fashion component of my career organically happened, fell in line with my background, education about, and experience with contemporary Indigenous art. My goal is to always incorporate a contemporary artistic component to any event, leading to diverse, exciting and vibrant programming. Including any fashion events I produce for SWAIA.
SWAIA has a long, complex history, one of exclusion and inclusion, historically based on non-Indigenous values. Of course this has changed since 1922, but the complexities are still present. My goal is to side step these dated rules and regulations.
My ambition with any fashion show I work on is to feature designers who are not bound by conventions or expectations of what “Indian” art or dress is or should be. The goal is to support and foster Indigenous expression free from rules and regulations that have been placed on Native North American artists since contact.
Beyond the runway, your museum exhibitions question the traditional boundaries and assumptions of how Indigenous art and culture are defined and displayed. You once stated that “Contemporary Native art pushes the boundaries of what Native people, and art, are about.” Can you speak about pushing those boundaries, and why your career has been largely comprised of challenging traditional assumptions about Indigenous arts?
Indigenous art in Canada is a much different scene compared to the United States. For example, there is a vibrant artist-run-center community in Canada that does not exist to the same extent in America. Artist-run-centers support a significantly different artistic expression, voice not driven by a consumeristic art market.
Art not restricted to concerns of “will this look good over someone’s couch” or “does this look Indian enough” leads to exciting artistic discourse that often challenges a viewer. Artist run spaces embrace Installation, performances, video art, mixed media work addressing present issues in political and social areas, raising awareness about excluded or marginalized histories and serve as a platform form of self-representation. Visual and creative sovereignty that exceed viewer expectations or stereotypes.
Non-Native people still love the “Edward Curtis Indian,” a statement coined by Vine Deloria. Generally, people in America know very little about the history of the country they live in. Including that this is all Indigenous land, stolen though the mass genocide of Indigenous people, their resources and aggressive assimilation programs. Artists bring attention to histories such as this when it is not controlled by art markets, collectors and commercial galleries. Artist are vital to a strong and healthy community.
So with fashion, teaching, the arts, and music you have your hand (and brain) in a bit of everything that is Indigenous arts and cultural. What is next on your horizon? What is the most pressing need you see that you would like to tackle?
Being in the arts can mean wearing many different hats. For me that entails hosting events, continual research, keeping my finger on the pulse of the current art scene, preparing lectures, marking essays, writing essays, while making time for studio visits, grant writing and fundraising.
Which bring me to two most pressing projects.
Currently, I am working on the 2019 SWAIA Fashion Show, including cultivating funds for the event. My goal is to bring an amazing New Zealand fashion designer, Shona Tawhiao, to show this year. $3000 needs to be raised to get her here with her fabulous and intricate designs. If anyone reading this would like to sponsor her travel please contact me.
A second immediate project is establishing a Satellite space in Santa Fe for Urban Shaman: Contemporary Aboriginal Art, the largest Indigenous artist run center in North America. This endeavor has recently been realized with the satellite Urban Shaman (US) launching in Vital Spaces, another venture I am involved with. I am working with the current Urban Shaman (US) director, Dania Warren, on the first US programming featuring Cree/Metis artist Kevin McKenzie in April 2019.
Bonus Question: Who do you think is doing the most innovative, interesting, disruptive work right now and why?
There are many Indigenous artists and curators doing amazing, innovative work right now. Currently Jeff Gibson and Kent Monkman are showing at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA), in the exhibition Art for a New Understanding: Native Perspectives, 1950s to Now. Another artist who I have admired since the 90’s and who is always doing remarkable work is Rebecca Belmore. She was the first Indigenous woman to represent Canada at the 2005 Venice Biennale. She is also one of the first artists to address murdered and missing Indigenous women in 2002 with her performance titled Vigil, performed in the downtown lower eastside of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. So much more can be discussed in terms of how the three artists just mentioned are some of the most interesting artists, creating disruptive work addressing issues such as identity, gender, colonialism, politics, and Indigenous histories. So much HAS been written about these artists. I encourage people to visit the current exhibition at MoCNA to visit the links embedded in my responses.