Today I was visiting the Peabody Essex Museum where a Native American fashion exhibit was about to close. The exhibit organized by Karen Kramer had received rave reviews and I had wanted to see why. Bringing together designers and fashion from the present to at least fifty years ago is a show that challenges stereotypes and defines new fashion design themes.
The exhibition brings these indigenous ideals to the foreground, not least because Karen Kramer, PEM’s curator of Native American Art and Culture, refuses to reduce Native expression to a quiver full of fashion clichés-fringe, feathers, silver and turquoise, blankets and leather.
Dating from the 1950s to today, the garments and artifacts on display are the work of designers from a wide range of Native communities. Also included are pieces by Seventh Avenue designers — Ralph Lauren, Isaac Mizrahi –who have fashioned their own homages to Native American aesthetics (the p.c. mind-set calls this “appropriation”). Ms. Kramer has organized the exhibition into four sections: Pathbreakers, Revisitors, Activators and Provocateurs. Wall text explains that Pathbreakers “have broken ground,” while Revisitors “refresh, renew, and expand on tradition.” Activators “merge street wear with personal style and activism,” and Provocateurs, who work at a conceptual or couture level, “expand the boundaries of what fashion can be.” (The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 1, 2015).
What struck me today was the freshness and the honored traditional heritage. A totem dress that was drop-dead ready for the runway while still harking back to large trees carved in the wilderness. And when fashionable art raises the conversation to this level the benefits are passed along to every viewer. Art is often talked about in the third person and extolled as if all art was and is the same. But art has human differences that make it better or less interesting and it is that reflection of human-ness that both connects it to us and also makes it vital or mundane.
The benefit to education is the potential for art to lift our conversations into the vitally important realm of freshness while still honoring the traditional curriculum. Today’s fashion show pushed my thinking way past appropriation stereotypes and into how so many pieces of art in America owe some of their roots to Native Americans. The wild-wild west, while largely a mythologized stereotype depends on the white-man’s fear of a stereotyped Native American people who rule the land we want to take. Less mythologized and deeper to the bone of learning are the thousands of sacred art objects, the placing of art in nature, and the art of honoring other animals that we have learned from the people whose land we took.
Art helps us learn from other cultures. It helps us to see what they saw. It forces us to take their perspective and really see the beauty captured in their art. This gift is tremendous. We can only learn what we can see and touch and breaking down the stereotypes helps us to activate our higher cognitive thinking in order to evaluate the object of someone else’s beauty.