Breaking Through Art’s “Buckskin Ceiling”

Dyani White Hawk with Wopila | Lineage II (a work in progress)
photo courtesy W Magazine

Native artists are finally breaking through what Jaune Quick-to-See Smith has called “the buckskin ceiling,” writes Jori Finkel for W Magazine, as the art world is more actively working to dissolve barriers that have traditionally excluded many of them from galleries and museums. She looks to artists Dyani White Hawk, Nicholas Galanin, and Rose B. Simpson to illustrate the ways that Indigenous artists “are bringing ancestral techniques and materials into a contemporary art context, often overturning stereotypes about Native cultures in the process.

“It’s wild how much isn’t known or understood,” says the Sičáŋğu Lakota artist Dyani White Hawk, 46, calling it “one of the biggest issues in navigating the contemporary art world as a Native person.” When the curators and other gatekeepers “don’t have a mental library that allows them to see and unpack and uncode things in your work, there can be a real communication breakdown,” she adds.

This knowledge vacuum puts a lot of pressure on Native artists to serve as educators or interpreters for non-Native audiences. While some embrace the role, going up against centuries of disinformation or outright cultural erasure is not easy. “It can be exhausting to show up and carry these conversations continually,” says Nicholas Galanin, 43, an artist of Tlingit and Unangax̂ heritage. But that also gives some of his work its urgency. “The artwork can carry these dialogues too, and break through to people without lecturing them, by sharing ideas, stories, dreams.”

Read “Doing It Their Way” in W Magazine.