“It’s 2017 and we’re doing the first nude Native exhibition. That’s kind of mind-boggling,” says Brent Learned, a renowned Cheyenne/Arapaho artist who envisions Native American Body of Art as the start of a Native renaissance. Learned, who organized the Native Pop collective, likewise inspired the Native American Body of Art movement and traveling exhibit.
The Native American Body of Art show debuts this Friday, July 7, in Oklahoma City. Learned anticipates a good crowd, if the first Native Pop event, held in July 2016, is any indication of fanfare.
The majority of the work featured in Native American Body of Art “depicts classical, very tasteful poses,” says Learned. “One thing I find fascinating is you can go to any museum in the country and see every race and creed depicted nude except Native Americans. It makes you wonder, ‘Why is that?’”
Learned has a theory. “A lot of people think it’s taboo. I personally think that [mentality] stems from assimilation,” Learned says. “Who was in control of the assimilation? Churches, boarding schools. Native people were basically taught not to be who they were.”
Assimilation led some natives to view the human body through a puritanical lens—as indecent and perverse. Through stripping natives of their language, art and culture, forced assimilation managed to manufacture consent. “We’ve been censoring ourselves since assimilation,” Learned says. “If you tear down a society and tell them that something that was so natural for them is wrong, that’s one way to control them.”
Contributing Navajo and Maricopa artist Serena Penaloza agrees: “Before the white people came, we were very open with our sensuality,” she says. “On my Maricopa side, the women would walk around topless. Then the white people came, religion came, and we were taught to be ashamed of our bodies.”
The colonizer, the oppressor, has historically represented native images to the world. “It’s usually done from the white man’s perspective. They always depicted natives in a defeated, cowardly aspect,” says Learned—who won’t stand for that. “That’s the reason I want to take the narrative over.”
Learned stresses that due to the derailing of native art through assimilation, Native Americans never had an art renaissance. He thinks now is the time. “It’s time to break out of that cocoon, spread the wings and fly,” he says. “All the masters of art that you can think of—at one time or another—have done nude art.”
While Learned has encountered polarizing reactions and outside attempts at censorship along his journey to launch Native American Body of Art, it’s only given him more steam to move forward. Various media outlets have refused him coverage with one art critic insisting her publication doesn’t cover nude art. “I feel very strongly that this is an historical event, because it’s never happened before. An all-Native American group got together and did depictions of Native American nudes. As an artist, I always want to do imagery that strikes conversation to tear down walls,” he says.
Natural or Provocative?
For some Americans, all nudity is provocative—even conservative, romantic imagery. As Learned sees it, the human body is sacred, attractive, sensual and perhaps even erotic if portrayed in such a context—but not sinful or something to shun. “The human form is a beautiful thing,” he says.
Native American Body of Art works depict both male and female nudes, although most of the women took advantage of the opportunity to express indigenous femininity and power.
“When talk of this exhibition started, I immediately knew what I wanted to paint. I wanted to paint confident, strong and powerful Native women, and at the same time beautiful, feminine and intimate,” says Oneka M. Jones, a Las Vegas-based native artist who is also designing her own Western Shoshone clothing line soon. Jones is an enrolled citizen of the Temoak Tribe of Western Shoshone, and a descendant of the Northern Paiute.
Jones’ art, like that of other native women involved, explores themes such as strength and cultural resilience, life and fertility, and gender ideals and the concept of beauty. In a sense, Native American Body of Art emboldens the self-determination of both the native and feminist art movements. It’s also about decolonizing perceptions of nakedness and reclaiming depictions of Indian imagery.
“My thoughts about Native American Body of Art are that there are so many stereotypes about Native American women. Either they are expected to be strong, and serious 24/7 or completely oversexualized with the trashy Halloween costumes and Coachella outfits that are bad, ignorant cultural appropriation,” Jones says. “I feel Native American Body of Art can give us artists a way to show a more realistic side, with beautiful colors and imagery.”
The Native American Body of Art lineup of artists reaches far and wide, including an Inupiaq (Inuit) Eskimo artist named Aakatchaq Schaeffer who resides on a boat in the small community of Sitka in Southeast Alaska. “I was absolutely excited to be a part of this show. I think there is a lot of shaming of our bodies that is influenced by religion in Alaska,” Schaeffer says.
For Schaeffer, a self-taught artist, merging the feminine form with traditional Alaska Native stories was empowering. “So these nudes, I wanted the form open, free to be comfortable in its own skin. And rather than a woman’s face, all of my female forms have a skeletal raven head. Somewhat steampunky. I like the idea of raven coming into her own, as a woman,” Schaeffer describes.
The Gender Gap, Body Positivity and Native Empowerment
Learned is hyper-aware of gender disparity in the art world, and he has made it his mission to include more female artists in the Native American Body of Art collective than male. “I wanted more female artists to be a part of it, that way they can take the dialogue and express themselves in a fashion they see fit,” Learned says.
A total of 10 artists—six female and four male—comprise the Native American Body of Art collective. “Each artist is from a different tribe. To see this done in their style, representing their tribe, in their voices, with their art, I think it’s going to be very powerful,” Learned says.
The full roster of Native American Body of Arts artists includes (in alphabetical order by first name): Aakatchaq Schaeffer, Inuit/Inupiaq; Brenda Musgrave (Mackey), Choctaw; Brent Learned, Cheyenne/Arapaho; George Levi, Cheyenne/Arapaho/Oglala Lakota; Joe Hopkins, Muscogee Creek; Marybeth Timothy, Cherokee; Oneka Jones, Western Shoshone/Northern Paiute; Serena Penaloza, Navajo/Maricopa; and Steven Paul Judd, Choctaw/Kiowa.
Jones couldn’t agree more strongly with Learned’s vision. “As women, I believe we can paint something different than men. Our bodies aren’t perfect, in a society that puts so much pressure on us to look a certain way,” she says. “As a woman, I can paint something that I know, like a woman breastfeeding. I know how that feels. I know how much work it is to have babies, the fulfillment you get, and also how it changes our bodies. I know how good it feels to take my bra off at the end of the day and relax. I’m sure my great-great grandmother and so on, were happy to take their clothes off at the end of the day, and do the same. I feel, as women, we can bring a little more reality to the table.”
Learned is especially sensitive to the portrayal of native women, considering the fact that native women have been exploited at disproportionate rates to other races. Native American and Alaska Native women are more than 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than the women in the U.S. in general. One in three Native women will be raped during their lifetime.
“We have a lot of sexual trauma, too—molestation within families, molestation in boarding schools,” Penaloza says. “That’s all in our trauma and blood memory, passed down generation to generation. I feel like if we can crack at that and break that away, what a powerful people we can be—engulfed in self-love.”
In a similar vein, the international body positivity movement encourages people to adopt more forgiving and affirming attitudes towards their bodies. That’s something the artists are sharing through their Native American Body of Art portfolios.
“There are probably plenty of models who are half my size; I don’t care,” Penaloza says. “I am confident in my work, and I am confident in myself. I want all of the native women—it doesn’t matter what age, doesn’t matter what tribe, doesn’t matter their story—to be confident in their own skin and to know that in this body, however they are in this life, is beautiful. It doesn’t matter what white America is telling us, what mainstream media is telling us. If we have that confidence within ourselves, and that self-love within ourselves, instead of comparing ourselves to everyone else—who we are never going to be like, because our genes are totally different—I think us as a people would be super strong, super united.”
Penaloza has modeled nude and in sensual photographs, as well as posed for live paintings and art classes, for many years. She initially began creating nude art by photographing herself in postures and then painting the image. The five paintings Penaloza created for the Native American Body of Art Exhibit reflect empowered indigenous women in artistic and sometimes sensual poses—“almost like you’re watching ballet, the positions and the forms that they’re taking,” she says.
For instance, in her painting titled “Tree of Life,” she shows a Native woman tucked in the fetal position with an umbilical cord stretching away from her belly and branching out. “In this painting, she is representing all knowing, full understanding, self-awareness, connected with self and her power, creating life and is creation itself. This is in the dimension of light, love and life. Us as Women are creators in the world; we bring life into it through our wombs,” Penaloza says.
In another piece called “We Are Resilience” a Native woman sporting her “braid of power” stares at the reflection of herself in the medicine wheel. “No matter what she does, or where she goes, she can never run from who and what she is,” Penaloza says.
For a couple of the artists who joined Native American Body of Art, nude expression was new for them. Initially, it was both exciting and somewhat intimidating. Brenda Musgrave, a Choctaw, self-taught artist based in Oklahoma City, just began painting four years ago. That said, she’s already receiving critical praise and awards for her art. Her first depiction of the nude human form was of a woman’s back—strong and sensual, yet subtle. The next one featured a native woman with her side turned—sultry, yet still demure. By her third painting, she stepped out of her comfort zone, illustrating a woman full-frontal. “It was eye-opening for me,” Musgrave says of painting women in the nude.
Learned is excited that Native American Body of Art will play a role in raising the profile of all native artists already depicting nudes, and those curious or eager to begin. Both his Native Pop and Body of Art movements connect the dots between otherwise fragmented efforts by individual indigenous artists across the country. By creating a platform, he inspires more artistic experimentation and creative expression among natives to make art that defies norms and pushes boundaries. “Hopefully this will inspire other native artists doing nudes to come out and show their work,” Learned says.
Penaloza sees the Native American Body of Art movement as powerful and transformative. She emphasizes that the key to happiness and self-determination lies in the capacity for self-love and the ability to embrace one’s inner power. Nude art of natives by natives is a pathway for that growth. “We have to give back our self-love and our sensuality; it’s who we naturally are, and we’ve been denying ourselves that. And I believe through our art—men drawing naked women, and women drawing naked men, etc.—we’re putting this out there for everyone to see. And we’re not putting a cloth over the nipples; we’re not wrapping it up in ribbon and hiding this and that. It’s there in its entirety,” Penaloza says. “We are here, we are beautiful. We are beautiful human beings.”
Native American Body of Art will travel to Phoenix Gallery in Lawrence, Kansas, in September. Learned is currently in the midst of talking to other venues. “This show will travel the country,” Learned says.