SANTA FE — On a recent visit to her home region of Western Canada, fashion curator and scholar Amber-Dawn Bear Robe came across her father’s clothing in a museum display. The garment had been his ceremonial dance dress as a boy and was now locked in a glass display case. “It’s a feeling of deep sadness that I can’t explain because it tells a different story about why that piece is in the museum,” Bear Robe told Hyperallergic. “It probably sold for a dollar, but my grandparents needed money.”
Bear Robe has been working overtime on a major turnaround of that story. She is the founder of the Southwest Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA) Indigenous Fashion Show, an eight-year-old tradition that annually closes the Santa Fe Indian Market, the world’s largest Native American arts festival.
This year, in honor of Indian Market’s centenary, Bear Robe . is curating Art of native fashion, a simultaneous exhibition of historical and contemporary Native fashion for the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA). When Hyperallergic visited her, Bear Robe felt a conceptual push-and-pull between the fashion show and the exhibition, plotting the significant narrative ground she would like to cover.
“The only overarching element, the only solid in Canada and the United States, is that Native American design is the original design of this country,” said Bear Robe. “Killing a seal, cleaning the guts and stitching them together to make a waterproof jacket – you don’t get more haute couture than that.” In that regard, she was disappointed when the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2021 exhibition In America: a lexicon of fashionanchoring the museum’s gala featured only one Native American designer.
Bear Robe’s recent scholarly work has focused on direct links between Native American design and a broader American aesthetic. She explores the topic in a forthcoming article for the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. “In the 1920s, there was a strong pressure for American designers to start looking at museum collections — historical and ‘primitive’ art, including Native American textiles and pottery — to mold a uniquely American design language,” Bear Robe said of her research. . “It was like the ABCs and 123s of how to appropriate our cultures.”
Establishing the presence and external influence of Native American fashion is only the first stage of Bear Robe’s curatorial approach. She explained that focusing on these broader elements could risk portraying indigenous culture as monolithic. Bear Robe goes further and engages with designers to unravel micro-regional stories that aren’t necessarily written down. Materials, colours, patterns and motifs can link a design to a particular tribe, or – like the beads on her father’s dance dress – even to a specific family.
“That’s the advantage I have for me. It’s not this outsider’s look; I know these designers and have worked with many of them. I want it to be the absolute opposite of anthropological, static art,” says Bear Robe.
This year’s fashion events at Indian Market will debut capsule and full collections from 14 designers on August 20 and 21. Bear Robe sees the catwalk as a rustling and stomping timeline of contemporary Indigenous fashion heritage. She identifies three fashion matriarchs among the participants: Dorothy Grant, Himikalas Pamela Baker and Patricia Michaels.
Grant is known for her bold prints that combine Haida Nation motifs with the mold line style, and Baker blends First Nations aesthetics from across Canada’s West Coast in her mixed-media fine jewelry. Michaels, who starred in two seasons of Project Runway, hand dyeing and painting translucent fabrics to create haute couture designs with flowing silhouettes.
Their work has influenced a next generation of designers, whom Bear Robe has called “the innovators.” Like Grant, Jamie Okuma and Lauren Good Day are known for their statement prints: Okuma combines natural motifs with geometry, and Good Day refers to ledger drawings and textile designs. Ashley Calling Bull and Jessica Matten are among the models to hit the catwalk.
“Then there is another component, namely the artists who really blur the line between art and fashion. They bring the performative element’, says Bear Robe. She calls this circle ‘the rule breakers’ and includes the visual artists turned designers Catherine Blackburn, Jason Baerg and Skawennati. Blackburn’s elaborate beadwork previously graced the Indian Market runway; hair New Age warriors collection showed in 2019 and quickly became a successful traveling exhibition. This year, she adds vibrant new designs to the clean silhouettes of collaborative designer Melanie LeBlanc.
The exhibit at MoCNA, a block from the Indian Market epicenter on the Santa Fe Plaza, is a tighter arrangement with even more plot to unravel. In The art of native fashionBear Robe will follow the arc of Native American fashion history through an estimated 28 looks.
She had just returned from a trip to Phoenix, where she bought pieces by historic artist and designer Lloyd Kiva New from a fashion retailer. Kiva New electrified mid-century fashion silhouettes with playful Indigenous culture-inspired patterns, and decorated its signature leather handbags with metal buckles featuring Cherokee iconography.
Bear Robe has also confirmed the appearance of living legends Virgil Ortiz, who is famous for futuristic black-and-white prints that reef Cochiti Pueblo pottery motifs, and Orlando Dugi, whose glittering embroideries and metallic fabrics evoke Diné’s creation stories. She had more trouble getting her hands on works by some of the younger designers: a piece from Okuma’s series of hand-beaded Christian Louboutin heels has eluded her until now, but she was on the trail of a private collector who bought her a pair. could borrow.
“Specifically with the exhibition, as a curator, I envy these larger institutions that have a lot more money than MoCNA,” said Bear Robe. “They may have more money, but I have access.” She’s been pulling the strings more aggressively lately, as interest in native fashion grows and other curators come into the picture. Recently, Crystal Bridges has expanded upon its native fashion collection and the Metropolitan Museum of Art is attempting to correct its previous blind spots with a second edition of In America.
“Some of the key pieces I wanted to include museums won’t borrow,” Bear Robe said. “Some of these pieces first appeared in the SWAIA fashion show, but I can’t bring them back to show, which is so daunting.” She quickly made it clear that she is thrilled that Native designers are entering prominent collections. It’s just hard for her to imagine items of clothing that were in archives when they were once activated by indigenous people. “Just let me have it for the runway and you can take it,” she said.