By Mark Dean Johnson, co-editor of When I Remember I See Red: American Indian Art and Activism in California
California is the most populous state for Native America peoples nationally, but the activities of its indigenous population often goes unnoticed amidst the clamourous activities of more recent arrivals to the State. One of the rich stories that has unfolded over the past half century since the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz by Indians of All Tribes has been the development of a rich American Indian contemporary art movement.
That art history was the inspiration for the exhibition When I Remember I See Red, a 2019 survey organized by the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento and currently on display at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles, with catalogue co-published by the University of California Press. That catalogue features essays by Native artists and scholars including co-curator Frank LaPena (Wintu), Janeen Antoine (Lakota), Julian Lang (Karuk) and Rick West (Cheyenne/Arapaho), as well as Malcolm Margolin, co-curator Mark Dean Johnson and others.
The group exhibition recounts how artists who were born and educated in California were at the forefront of American Indian contemporary art nationally but little recognized in their home state, and reminds us that the key generation that helped build the movement’s momentum are now reaching the end of their careers. For example, in just the past few years, key artists including Dugan Aguilar, Rick Bartow, Robert Freeman, Frank LaPena, James Luna, and Leatrice Mikkelsen have all passed on.
A group exhibition that celebrates the achievement of fifty artists can only summarily suggest the depth of their contribution. As a next step, long-time California Native American culture advocate Malcolm Margolin has suggested the related California Native American Artist Archives Project to document the archives of these artists to facilitate their future placement in appropriate repositories. A modest grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to describe and document Native artist archives was secured earlier in 2020, and work with both artists and their estates has begun. The University of California Press has pledged twenty-five copies of the When I Remember I See Red catalogue to present as gifts to participating families and researchers.
Although no single institution is being recommended as the archival repository for these collections, the project focuses on training a new generation of archivists toward safeguarding the story of the artists and their work. It focuses on speaking directly with individuals in their homes (now via Facetime or Zoom), together looking through boxes and closets, and carefully describing the scope of paper files as well as audio and video recording of the artists speaking about their work. We anticipate this documentation of informal collections will serve as a tool in finding homes for these invaluable archives as these promise to be an important resource for future generations of scholars and for the Native community alike.