Over the past few years, Native Americans have become increasingly visible within the cultural mainstream in the United States. From the appointment of high-ranking government officials like Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, to the centering of Indigenous stewardship in the fight for climate resilience, to the popularity of hit television shows and podcasts like Reservation Dogs and The Red Nation—at long last, Native voices are finally being heard on their own terms.
The same is true within the art world. With major museum exhibitions, gallery shows, institutional leadership, sold-out art fair booths, and new Native-led arts initiatives like Forge Project and Ma’s House, we are currently seeing a wave of recognition for contemporary Native American artists.
From art world veterans who have been using their work to advocate for Native rights for decades to a younger generation of artists who are using traditional techniques to address contemporary issues, here is a list of some of the most influential Native American artists living and working today.
In a 1982 interview with the Arizona Republic, Salish artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith said, “I look at line, form, color, texture, in contemporary art as well as viewing old Indian artifacts the same way. With this I make parallels from the old world to contemporary art. A Hunkpapa drum becomes a Mark Rothko painting; ledger book symbols become Cy Twomblys; a Naskaspi bag is a Paul Klee; a Blackfoot robe, Agnes Martin; beadwork color is Josef Albers; a parfleche is Frank Stella.”
Considered an esteemed elder in the Native art world, Smith has been creating her uniquely complex abstract paintings and prints since the 1970s. Her Native name, “Quick-to-See,” was bestowed by her Shoshone grandmother as a sign of the artist’s early ability to identify the world around her. This innate visual talent can be seen clearly in the way Smith appropriates pop cultural imagery and combines it with her own personal and political symbolism.
She has been commissioned to create a number of public artworks, including the terrazzo floor design of the Denver Airport; a mile-long sidewalk history trail in Seattle; and a memorial at the Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco, which was once the site of an Ohlone Indian burial ground. In 2020, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., purchased her iconic mixed-media painting I See Red: Target (1992), making it the first painting by a Native American artist acquired by the museum. In addition to the National Gallery of Art, Smith’s work appears in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.Smith is represented by Garth Greenan Gallery.
From the mean streets of Manhattan to the mountain vistas of Mesa, Arizona, multimedia artist Brad Kahlhamer lives in two different worlds, making spiritual, cosmic, punk aesthetic–infused art. Through this alchemy, and by drawing on his own personal history and biography, Kahlhamer creates what he calls the “third place.”
Born in Tucson, Arizona, to Native American parents, Kahlhamer was adopted by a German family and raised in the nearby city of Mesa and, later, the state of Wisconsin. In 1982, Kahlhamer moved to New York and spent a decade as a touring musician, and 10 more years as a graphic designer for Topps Chewing Gum Company. Throughout that time, Kahlhamer continued to pursue his own artistic practice, creating ledger-like paintings that feature wild-braided Native people floating in a psychedelic swirl of teepees, coyotes, eagles, and cacti.
He recently signed with Garth Greenan Gallery, whose solo presentation of Kahlhamer’s work at this year’s Armory Show completely sold out. Next year promises to be a big one for the artist, with back-to-back solo museum shows at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art and the Tucson Museum of Art, and a debut solo exhibition with Garth Greenan Gallery that fall.
Marie Watt, Turtle Clan member of the Seneca Nation, has stitched up her own unique place in the art world, basing much of her artistic practice on the organic experiences of sewing circles. Adverse to working alone, she invites local communities to join her in creating her works, providing taped-together fabric and letter patterns. From there, the group communes around tables and begins to sew. The resulting sections are then pieced together and embellished with paint and tin jingle cones to create large-scale artworks.
“Sewing is such a basic matrilineal thing within tribes and what women do,” Watt recently told Indian Country Today. “I think what drew me most to the sewing circles was just seeing the conversation that happens when your eyes are diverted and you’re working with something that’s regimented and then stories flow.” These stories often form the inspiration for her next participatory piece, continuing the cycle of community sharing.
Like Kahlhamer, Watt’s work was also featured in a sold-out single-artist booth at this year’s Armory Show, presented by Marc Straus. She is also currently the subject of two museum shows—at the Hunterdon Art Museum in New Jersey and the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University in Georgia.
Raised on the Apsáalooke (Crow) reservation in Montana, Wendy Red Star has spent her career upending stoic portrayals of Native Americans in photographs, sculptures, videos, fiber arts, and performances. Her humorous, surreal send-ups of Edward S. Curtis photographs and other stereotypical images of Native Americans, as well as her tableau landscapes featuring blowup dolls and dime-store “Indian” holiday items, reclaim these problematic portrayals.
Red Star herself is in many of these photographs, posing serenely in traditional costume amidst inflatable elk, turkeys, Pilgrims, and skeleton Indian chiefs. Meanwhile, her witty and unsettling sculptures incorporate headless golden deer and wolves draped with Indian blankets to comment on the fur trade and the culture of trophy hunting.
According to an interview with Aperture, Red Star’s penchant for stirring up controversy through her art began in school. “I was erecting teepees around campus,” she said. “I had discovered that Bozeman, Montana, was Crow territory. I wanted everybody to know that this was Crow territory. I didn’t even think of it as political. I just thought, this is true. It wasn’t until years later that I realized they are saying it’s political because it’s against the colonial standard. I don’t aim to do political work, but it becomes political because it’s talking outside the colonial framework.” In 2020, Artsy recognized Red Star as one of the year’s most influential artists.
Tlingit/Unangax̂ artist and musician Nicholas Galanin made a big statement at this year’s Desert X with his work Never Forget (2021). The 45-foot-tall white letters spelling out the words “INDIAN LAND” were placed in the middle of the Palm Springs desert, referencing the iconic Hollywood sign 122 miles west in Los Angeles. The monumental traveling work was created in order to raise awareness and funds for the Land Back movement, whose mission is to go beyond acknowledgement and raise funds for legal action in the courts to enforce treaties or to purchase land back from postcolonial owners.
In addition to his wide-ranging art practice, Galanin is also a carver and educator, making traditional canoes and passing the knowledge and craft along via extensive online documentation. He also works in sculpture, video, engraving, and taxidermy. As a musician, his band Ya Tseen released their debut album Indian Yard this past spring.
Uniting all these methods of expression is Galanin’s deeply rooted connection to the land and culture he belongs to. The documentary film Love and Fury by Seminole/Creek filmmaker Sterlin Harjo—creator of the hit series Reservation Dogs—is a testament to this. The film follows Galanin around Sitka, Alaska, as he makes wooden canoes and art, and hunts a seal in the harbor and butchers it in his home garage.
Galanin was also one of eight artists to withdraw their work from the 2019 Whitney Biennial in response to the now resigned museum board member Warren Kanders funding weapons that had been used against protestors worldwide. He has been represented by Peter Blum Gallery since 2019.
Through his paintings and sculptures, Choctaw/Cherokee artist Jeffrey Gibson employs traditional Indigenous handcraft techniques like river cane basket weaving, intricate glass beading, Algonquian birch bark biting, and porcupine quill work. These methods are used to create dazzling objects like beaded punching bags, signage that reads like woven blankets, and 12-foot-tall fringe curtains that tell stories through color.
His work is currently on view at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum outside of Boston, in a solo show titled “Infinite Indigenous Queer Love.” A celebration of Gibson’s identity as a queer Indigenous man, the exhibition includes a new series of collages, three fringe sculptures, and a number of collaborative video pieces.
In 2019, Gibson received the MacArthur “Genius Grant” and created a massive pyramid-shaped sculpture in New York’s Socrates Sculpture Park. The multilevel, brightly patterned work Because Once You Enter My House It Becomes Our House (2020) is an homage to the underrecognized ingenuity of Indigenous North American peoples and cultures. Made of plywood with a steel infrastructure, the work is covered in wheat-pasted posters that integrate geometric designs with slogans like “Respect Indigenous Land” and “The Future is Present.”
Born in Colorado, Gibson’s family moved frequently, which helped influence his cross-cultural aesthetic. His work has been featured in multiple solo and group exhibitions, including the 2019 Whitney Biennial.
Photographer Cara Romero’s powerful, glossy images shine a light on contemporary and traditional roles, particularly among her Chemehuevi tribe. “Most Californians do not know this history, and do not understand modern Native struggles for recognition and cultural landscape preservation. We are literally invisible,” said Romero in a recent interview with Hyperallergic.
Her photos are striking, vibrant, and modern images of Native people. Children in loincloth and feathers run across the windmill fields of the Coachella Valley. Women in Native garb float underwater, an homage to the concept of water memory. Native women pose like paper dolls with outfits and accessories.
Her photos have been featured on billboards as part of Desert X in 2019, and in the Heard Museum’s high-profile show “Larger Than Memory” in 2020. Her art has also graced the cover Native American Art magazine. Recently, Romero received a $50,000 Radical Imagination Grant from the NDN Collective to create another series of billboards in Los Angeles highlighting Native artists.
Weshoyot Alvitre, Elka Menyille, 2021. Courtesy of the artist.
Of Tongva and Scottish heritage, graphic novel artist and illustrator Weshoyot Alvitre grew up in Satwiwa, a cultural center started by her father, Art Alvitre. This upbringing allowed her to be close to the land and be surrounded by Native knowledge.
That connection is what has informed her work for the past 15 years. In addition to contributing to numerous award-winning books and graphic novels about Indigeneity, Weshoyot has also created numerous political illustrations for causes like the NODAPL movement for Standing Rock, protecting Puvungna, Mauna Kea, and protesting the creation of a border wall on Indigenous lands. She currently has a billboard declaring “TONGVALAND” displayed in Los Angeles via a grant from Radical Imagination.
Weshoyot Alvitre, Tongvaland, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.
“While most of my work is generally in the field of illustrations or comics, I also work in a lot of other mediums,” she said in an interview with Indian Country Today. “The TONGVALAND billboard was done as a response to the lack of recognition that my people, the Tongva, are given on their own lands.…I was trying to deliberately bring attention to the often disregarded fact that the Hollywood Hills, the city of lights, was built on unceded tribal lands.”
Her illustrations are also currently featured in a new permanent exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in New York called “Native New York.” Her drawings cover pre–Revolutionary War times up through contemporary events and tell the history of Native occupation from Long Island to New York City to Niagara Falls.
At the center of many of Cree artist Kent Monkman’s monumental tableaus is his alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. “I needed my own artistic persona that could live inside the work,” Monkman explained in a recent radio interview. “I wanted a persona that represented empowered Indigenous sexuality. That is why Miss Chief was created.” This gender-fluid alter ego is a time-traveling shape shifter that switches the Euro-colonial gaze to redirect preconceived notions of history and Indigenous peoples. Miss Chief is placed in settings that mash up classical images to startling sociopolitical effect. His provocative reinterpretations of Western European and American art history upend themes of colonization, classical imagery, sexual identity, and resilience through painting, video, performance, and installation.
Monkman’s works were recently exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he was commissioned for two paintings, Welcoming the Newcomers and Resurgence of the People (both 2019). He has also created site-specific performances for the Royal Ontario Museum and the Denver Art Museum.
Mainly known as a ceramist, Santa Clara Pueblo artist Rose B. Simpson works in everything from sculpture, fashion, performance, music, installation, and writing to create powerful symbolic works. In her 2014 piece Maria, she repainted a 1985 Chevy El Camino, transforming the classic car into a sleek black-on-black object adorned with designs from traditional Tewa pottery. In works like 7th Generation (2017), stacked ceramic heads become totems.
“My life-work is a seeking out of tools to use to heal the damages I have experienced as a human being of our postmodern and postcolonial era—objectification, stereotyping, and the disempowering detachment of our creative selves through the ease of modern technology,” she said in an artist statement. “These tools are sculptural pieces of art that function in the psychological, emotional, social, cultural, spiritual, intellectual and physical realms. The intention of these tools is to cure, therefore, my hope is that they become hard-working utilitarian concepts.”
Simpson also once played in a band called Garbage Pail Kidz, named for the collectible cards that were designed by Brad Kahlhamer in the 1980s before he became a fine artist. More recently, her visceral works earned her the prestigious Joan Mitchell Foundation Award.
Caddo Nation artist Raven Halfmoon’s large-scale ceramics fuse traditional Native American imagery with scrawls of graffiti and splatters. She tags her own name, thunderbirds, microaggressive phrases (“You don’t look native” and “Do you speak Indian?”), and corporate logos across her monumental clay totems and horses. The arresting juxtapositions create a disconnect between the recalled past and the rough present.
Deeply influenced by the techniques used in traditional Caddo pots, Halfmoon described how these ancestral vessels inspired her practice in a recent interview with Artsy. “Not only was I thinking about their cultural significance, but who made it, whose hands it touched, and what the object was used for,” she said. “It was important to build monumental works and carry the mantle of material knowledge forward for the next set of makers. For me, using an ancient material like my ancestors did connects me to them, and I hope to evolve that craft with my work.”
In January, Halfmoon’s exhibition “Okla Homma to Manahatta” at Ross + Kramer Gallery marked the artist’s first New York solo show. Later this year, in the summer, she debuted a new series of equine ceramics at Kouri + Corrao Gallery in a solo show titled “HORSE [Di’i’tamah, Issuba, Lichiile].”
Coming from two cultures that are seemingly worlds apart, Libyan-Yurok painter Saif Azzuz sees his work “as an acknowledgement and reclamation of those spaces.” Recently, Azzuz has focused his attention specifically on his Yurok heritage. Inspired by the California land and wildfires that have alarmingly ravaged the state in recent years, Azzuz takes visual cues from his mother’s work for the Cultural Fire Management Council, a community-based organization that practices the Indigenous tradition of controlled burns that lead to a healthier ecosystem.
Azzuz’s process begins with a story or journaling, then light sketching. From there, he often places invasive species directly onto the canvas, then paints back onto the plants using acrylic, natural dyes, and enamel. Through his colorful abstractions that resemble bodies of water, forest floors, and drought maps, Azzuz explores the entangled beauty and wisdom involved in these Native land management practices.
Azzuz will make his debut at Art Basel in Miami Beach in December with San Francisco–based Anthony Meier Fine Arts. He will have his first solo show with the gallery in March 2022.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Weshoyot Alvitre’s “TONGVALAND” billboard was created in response to Nicholas Galanin’s “Never Forget” (2021) sign at Desert X. The artist created the illustration years before Galanin’s work.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Jaune Quick-to-See Smith’s painting,“I See Red: Target” (1992), was the first artwork by a Native American artist to be acquired by the National Gallery of Art. It was the first painting the institution acquired by a Native American artist.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Brad Kahlhamer’s birth parents are Apache. The article has been corrected to state that they are Native American.