These Indigenous Artists Are Using Public Art to Make Their Voices Heard
Indigenous artists around the country are on a mission to remind the mainstream, 'We exist.' Here's how you can visit five of their most stunning works.
From the ancient petroglyphs at Nevada's Grimes Point Archaeological Site to the vibrant murals adorning Indian Alley in Los Angeles, Native American communities have been harnessing the power of visual art to tell their stories for thousands of years. And we’re not just talking about paintings hung behind gallery doors. Instead, many Indigenous artists are sidestepping institutional barriers and bringing their works into the public eye via moving outdoor installations intended to amplify the diverse history, traditions, and stories of their peoples. (Not that their body of work isn't gaining more and more recognition in the exhibition space as well—Jeffrey Gibson is set to be the first solo indigenous artist to represent the US at the Venice Biennale in 2024.)
Why public art? Part of the reason lies in the numbers. While the US Census Bureau’s 2021 American Community Survey noted a significant growth in those identifying as American Indian and Alaska Native—from 5.2 million in 2010 to 8.7 million—Indigenous peoples still only account for about 2.6% of the country’s total population. As such, going public is a way for Native artists to make their voices heard, to shout from the rooftops, "We exist."
Heather Ahtone, the director of curatorial affairs at the First Americans Museum, says that while it’s important to remember that there’s no singular Native viewpoint, there is some commonality between works created by Indigenous Americans, including a continuous reverence for and connection to the land and their communities.
For Ahtone, the significance of Indigenous narratives goes beyond just dates and events; it's about a spiritual connection to a specific place, or what she calls a Genesis story. She says that for many Native American cultures, "Knowledge doesn’t rest in books but in music and oral history." What’s more, she sees Indigenous architecture like Navajo hogans, Plains tipis, and Pawnee lodges as not just functional buildings but artistic expressions of cultural identity.
Today, Native artists across the country and beyond are projecting their creative visions larger and louder than ever before, pushing the boundaries of contemporary art and paving the way for a more inclusive and dynamic cultural landscape. Here are just a few of the places where Indigenous artists have transformed buildings, town squares, city streets, and more into captivating super-sized canvases.
Nestled in the gritty alleyways of Los Angeles' Skid Row neighborhood lies Indian Alley, which is a bastion of Native defiance and activism. Pamela J. Peters is the Diné artist and historian who helped to bring Native American artists there. Her latest self-funded documentary, aptly named Indian Alley, tells the story of how American Indians came to Los Angeles, which is now home to more than 70,000 tribal members. One of Indian Alley's most prominent features is a mural by an Apache artist named Carrie Curley, who is also known as CC. It beautifully depicts the lifecycle of an Apache woman. CC was the first Native female muralist to showcase art in Indian Alley, which Peters says was crucial to the project, since Indigenous women artists can be doubly overlooked.
WMC The Basket
This collaborative public art installation, situated along Broadway Street in downtown Asheville, North Carolina, honors the longstanding tradition of Cherokee basket making and pays homage to the site’s location on an ancestral trading route.
Mary W. Thompson, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, brought the installation to life. WMC The Basket looks like a giant woven basket adorned with a steel chevron-shaped design. It also features a mural based on three magnificent river cane mats, created by Thompson, which weave together Cherokee motifs such as the sacred "Peace Pipe" and the radiant "Noonday Sun." The installation is also an innovative space where visitors can sit in the shade, escape the bustle of the city, and learn about Cherokee culture through bilingual signs written in Cherokee syllabary as well as English.
Held in the heart of the Cheyenne River Lakota Nation, the RedCan "Graffiti Jam" is four-day cultural extravaganza that exposes Lakota youth to the power of art by allowing them to create murals that showcase their heritage. Julie Garreau, the founder of the Jam and its host organization, came up with the concept after looking for ways to keep Lakota youth more engaged in art. "It's a community-focused celebration, with art, dancing, music, fellowship, and traditional foods like buffalo soup and wojapi," she says. The event takes place every July, is open to the public, and features two days of painting at select mural sites throughout the city of Eagle Butte and two days of painting in a 3.5-acre public art park.
One of the most symbolic works created during the Graffiti Jam is a mural that incorporates the phrase "mitakuye oyasin," which means "We're All Related” in the Lakota language. "As Lakota people, we don’t normally see our language in written form," says Garreau, who drives by the mural every day. "This mural serves a poignant reminder that we are interconnected, and what affects one, affects all."
The Painted Desert Project
Chip Thomas is a physician, an artist, a photographer, and the creator of the Painted Desert Project in Arizona. He’s been collaborating with community-based street artists since 2009, and first funded a group to make art in the Navajo Nation back in 2012.
Much of his work, both in a clinical setting and a community setting, centers around wellness, individually and collectively. "Even though the Navajo nation is rich with natural resources including coal, oil, natural gas, uranium and water in aquifers as well as the Colorado River, the wealth from these resources is primarily with multinational corporations located off Navajo land, so the Navajo people still suffer," he says. A quarter of the residents of Navajo Nation lack running water and electricity.
Thomas's art seeks to capture the beauty of the community amidst its struggles with intergenerational trauma and nurture a sense of belonging. Two of his notable photographic installations are "Rose Hurley With Her Great-grandson, Edzavier," which speaks to the strength of Navajo families and "The Green Room," which speaks to the legacy of uranium mining on Navajo land from 1942 to 1984. Thomas says that, because the mining companies weren't required to mitigate the mine sites when they closed, there are over 500 abandoned mine sites scattered around the Navajo Nation that continue to contaminate the land, water, animals, and, ultimately, the Navajo people.
"You Can't Take It With You... So Give It All Away" and PAHTIA
Nani Chacon is a Diné-Chicana muralist whose artistic practice is rooted in her discovery of subcultures, such as graffiti, and the integration of community practice through teaching. Her mural projects focus on community engagement, addressing the complexity of contemporary indigenous culture and identities. Her mural "You Can't Take it With You... So Give It All Away" prominently features two Native women, each cradling a basket, which symbolizes the generational significance of making and sharing these art forms across time and space. It's located in the heart of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Chacon also recently contributed to a one-of-a-kind sound installation at the National Hispanic Cultural Center. Called PAHTIA, which means "to heal" in the Nahuatl language, the installation reflects the ancient practice of using public art for healing. It incorporates a collective abstract design that utilizes Mayan, Aztec, and Anasazi references. While the exhibit has no sequence of steps, each sound emitted has a similar wavelength and incorporates frequencies that aid in healing the body and mind. Chacon believes art should be accessible and a meaningful catalyst for social change. "My objective is to create artworks that are reclamations of the spaces they inhabit," she says.
Taryn White is a contributor for Thrillist.