The Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota made history with one exhibit. On March 18, the museum opened the exhibition Reclaiming Home: Contemporary Seminole Art.
History not only for itself, but all of Florida, as the first museum presentation of contemporary art by Indians with ancestral, historical, and present-day connections to the state.
The Ringling is the State Art Museum of Florida, built from the wealth and upon the collection of circus impresario John Ringling who began wintering his troupe of performers, animals and Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus support staff in Sarasota in 1927. Ringling was also one of the early 20th century’s most prolific art collectors.
The grandiose pink, Renaissance-style palace with 21 galleries enclosing a courtyard filled with copies of iconic sculptures–including Michelangelo’s David–first opened in 1930 and was bequeathed by Ringling to the people of Florida upon his death in 1936.
It houses work by Velazquez, El Greco, Van Dyck, Veronese, Tiepolo, Gainsborough and Rubens–the premier collection of European Old Master paintings in the Southeast. The exemplary Greek and Roman antiquities acquired by Ringling in 1928 from the Metropolitan Museum of Art live here. It houses art objects from China, Japan and across Asia.
But until this spring, nothing of or from Florida’s indigenous people.
Reclaiming Home: Contemporary Seminole Art
Reclaiming Home highlights the breadth and depth of the artwork by Seminole, Miccosukee, and mixed-heritage artists from Florida along with important pieces by internationally recognized artists of Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole descent from Oklahoma and beyond.
Twelve artists contributed dozens of items ranging from paintings to patchwork, beadwork, bandolier bags and sashes, wood carvings, a large dugout canoe, ceramic sculptures, video presentations, multimedia pieces, ceramics, skateboard decks and a mural.
“I think this show was groundbreaking–not just in Florida–because it took (Native American art) to a level of fine art,” Jessica Osceola (Seminole; b. 1984) told Forbes.com. “Being in that kind of gallery, the setting, the curation, everything they did elevated our place in the fine arts community.”
The Ringling’s prestige, placing the work of these artists in its Modern and Contemporary galleries otherwise occupied by Josef Albers, Marcel Duchamp, Alexander Calder, Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Rauschenberg, makes a clear statement about the significance of the Native artists and their artwork.
Importantly, the show also takes as its singular focus contemporary art. The Ringling is an art museum, not a history museum. The exhibition’s focus is art, not ethnography.
Even today, contemporary Native American art often shares institutional space with Native American artifacts, tethering Indian stories to the past. Subconsciously, the impact on audiences conjoins Indigenous people to history, instead of placing them firmly in the here and now.
“I hope (visitors to the exhibition) say, ‘these people not only exist’–because I get that a lot, ‘wow, you guys still exist?’ Yes, first of all–then, I hope they (see) how (we’re) living and working in present day, contributing to our story now,” Osceola said.
Reclaiming Home, Claiming the Museum
At 25, Corinne Zepeda (Seminole) is the second youngest artist with work in Reclaiming Home. Summer vacations in her family were spent at museums.
“We would go and sit in galleries for hours,” she told Forbes.com. “I always hated it as a kid. I was like, ‘why are we doing this? I’m bored. I don’t want to be here and take the guided tour and learn about all of the paintings.’”
She of course appreciates the lessons now, but back then, which wasn’t all that long ago, trips to the Museum of Modern Art or The Guggenheim in New York failed to interest Zepeda, not only because she was confined by their walls, but also because of what was on their walls.
“You don’t see yourself on TV, you don’t see yourself in the movies, or in books, and it also carried over into art,” Zepeda said. “I never saw myself in any of the art.”
Zepeda’s heritage is mixed. Seminole and Mexican on her father’s side; German, Scottish, and Welsh on her mother’s.
“I could see my mom in the images, she looks a lot like some of the paintings, but then I would look at my dad and myself and think, ‘I don’t see anybody who looks like me,’” she remembers. “For my little cousins to see my art on the wall (at Ringling) was a big deal because they know now it’s possible to do that; now you’re seeing yourself in these images.”
It’s difficult for white audiences in America to imagine going into museum spaces and not being surrounded by paintings with people who look like them, created by artists who look like them, the dominant white culture. Museums have always been complicit in establishing, promoting, and continuing it.
Conversely, for racial minorities, going into a mainstream museum and seeing a single item depicting someone who looks like them can cause spontaneous outbursts of celebration.
In the Ringling’s nearly 100-year history, it had all of one object in its permanent collection created by a Native artist, and that artist had no connection to Florida. In addition to the exhibition, the museum has acquired a work by Osceola to add to its permanent collection.
“There’s two sides to that. We’ve set the standard, there’s a couple of different museums who have already reached out to a handful of us to ask us to also exhibit there, which is really great, but on the other hand, it’s 2023 and we’re just now starting to accept Native artists in these spaces,” Zepeda said. “We’re just now getting representation in museum spaces? It’s kind of alarming, but I’m glad that Ringling has made the effort and I hope other institutions will also do the same thing.”
Southeast, not Southwest
For Western art audiences and institutions, the presentation of contemporary Native American art as novel may seem strange.
There’s nothing groundbreaking about showing contemporary Native American art in a museum in certain states. This includes, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, California, and Montana.
It remains that way in the Southeast.
Indian removal, assimilation policies, and popular culture resulted in most Americans thinking “West” when they think about Indians. They imagine headdresses and teepees; the Sioux and the Cheyenne; and horses and buffalo.
Largely forgotten are the Eastern Woodland tribes. Same as in the West, Indigenous people and communities covered every square inch of the eastern half of what we now call the United States.
This unconscious bias impacts the art world as well where “Indian art” is often assumed to only encompass traditionally Southwestern material–turquoise and silver jewelry, Pueblo pottery, Diné weavings.
“I was approached by a man at the opening at Ringling and he (said), ‘I love (the exhibition), have you ever considered going out to Santa Fe and setting up (at Indian) market, and (I told him), respectfully, ‘no,’” Zepeda said. “He was like, ‘why?’ There is a very big (difference) between the two of us and I absolutely adore all of my Southwestern Native American friends and they love me, but our art and our cultures and the way we live our lives are two different ways, two different styles of existing.”
Two Different Styles of Existing
Go to Albuquerque and then go to Sarasota, and you’ll understand what she means.
Not only are Florida and New Mexico separated by 2,000 miles. However, the climate, the soil, the topography, the sunlight, the vegetation, the animals — the everything – is completely different.
Florida is blue and green and humid with water on three sides. New Mexico is tan and clear and parched and mountainous.
Naturally, the Indigenous people in either place developed separate ways of life and cultural practices and artwork from one another. That nuance, Native Americans as diverse, not monolithic, remains lost to a large segment of Americans.
“Each one of us are unique so I kind of get mad, and I’m mad from myself and my tribe, but I’m also mad for my Southwest friends because I’m like, ‘listen, they’re a whole different people than us!’ We’re two completely different people,” Zepeda said.
That, too, is a benefit for exhibitions of Native American art in mainstream museum spaces. Education. Like it or not, every Native artist working today carries the burden of education and explanation along with their artmaking.
Audiences expected Indigenous artists to be tribal historians, not Jackson Pollock. When showing his painting, no one expect ed him to be an expert on American history.
But that’s the reality.
Reclaiming Home Ringling Museum of Art, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota. Through Sept. 4: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. $23-$25. 941-359-5700, ringling.org. The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki on the Big Cypress Indian Reservation, a museum of Seminole culture and history, assisted the Ringling in this presentation. It welcomes guests daily. $10. ahtahthiki.com