SANTA FE — On a recent visit to her home region of western Canada, fashion curator and academic Amber-Dawn Bear Robe came across her father’s clothes on display at a museum. The garment had been her ceremonial ball gown as a child, and she was now encased in a glass case. “It’s a feeling of deep sadness that I can’t explain, because it speaks to another narrative as to why that piece is in the museum,” Bear Robe told Hyperallergic. “It probably sold for a dollar, but my grandparents needed money.”
Bear Robe has been working overtime on a huge reversal of that story. She is the founding director of the Southwest Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA) Indian Fashion Show, an eight-year tradition that annually closes the Santa Fe Indian Market, the world’s largest Native American arts festival.
This year, in honor of Indian Market’s centennial, Bear Robe is curating Indigenous Fashion Art, a simultaneous exhibition of historic and contemporary Native fashion for the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts at the Institute of American Indian Arts (MoCNA). When Hyperallergic visited, Bear Robe was feeling a conceptual tug-of-war between the fashion show and the exhibition, mapping out the considerable narrative ground she’d like to cover.
“The one overarching thing, the one solid thing in Canada and the United States, is that Native American design is the original design of this land,” said Bear Robe. “Killing a seal, cleaning out the intestines and sewing them up to make a waterproof jacket – there’s no more haute couture than that.” In that sense, she was disappointed when the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2021 exhibition In America: A Fashion Lexiconwhich anchored the museum gala, featured only one Native American designer.
Bear Robe’s recent scholarly work has focused on the direct links between Native American design and a broader American aesthetic. She explores the topic in an upcoming article for the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. “In the 1920s there was a strong push for American designers to go and look at museum collections (historic and ‘primitive’ arts, including Native American textiles and pottery) to inform a uniquely American design language. Bear Robe said of his investigation. “It was like the ABC and the 123 of how to appropriate our cultures.”
Establishing the presence and external influence of Native American fashion is only the first phase of Bear Robe’s curatorial approach. He explained that focusing on these broader elements may risk portraying the native culture as monolithic. Going further, Bear Robe conducts conversations with designers to unravel micro-regional narratives that are not necessarily scripted. Materials, colors, patterns, and motifs can link a design to a particular tribe or, like the beads on her father’s ball gown, even a specific family.
“That, to me, is the advantage I have. It’s not this outsider look; I know these designers and have worked with many of them. I want it to be the absolute opposite of anthropological and static art,” said Bear Robe.
This year’s fashion events at Indian Market will feature full and capsule collections from 14 designers on August 20 and 21. Bear Robe envisions the runway as a hissing, stomping timeline of contemporary native fashion legacies. Among the participants, he identifies a trio of fashion “matriarchs”: Dorothy Grant, Himikalas Pamela Baker and Patricia Michaels.
Grant is known for her eye-catching prints that blend Haida Nation motifs with formal style, and Baker blends First Nations aesthetics from across Canada’s west coast in her mixed-media fine jewelry. Michaels, who competed in two seasons of Catwalk Project, hand-dyes and paints sheer fabrics to create couture designs with flowing silhouettes.
His work has influenced a subsequent generation of designers, whom Bear Robe has dubbed “the innovators.” Like Grant, Jamie Okuma and Lauren Good Day are known for their bold prints: Okuma combines nature motifs with geometry, and Good Day references book drawings and textile designs. Ashley Calling Bull and Jessica Matten are among the models walking the runway.
“Then there’s another component to this, which is the artists who really blur that line between art and fashion. They are bringing the performative element,” said Bear Robe. She calls this circle “the rule breakers,” and it includes visual artists-turned-designers Catherine Blackburn, Jason Baerg, and Skawennati. Blackburn’s elaborate beadwork has graced the Indian Market catwalk before; its new age warriors The collection was shown in 2019 and soon after became a successful traveling exhibition. This year she’s adding vibrant new designs to collaborating designer Melanie LeBlanc’s clean silhouettes.
The exhibit at MoCNA, which is a block from the epicenter of the Indian Market in Santa Fe Plaza, is a tighter arrangement with even more plot to unfold. In The art of indigenous fashionBear Robe will trace the arc of Native American fashion history through an estimated 28 looks.
He had just returned from a trip to Phoenix, where he procured pieces by historic artist and designer Lloyd Kiva New from a fashion dealer. Kiva New electrified mid-century fashion silhouettes with playful patterns inspired by native culture, and adorned its signature metal-buckled leather bags with Cherokee iconography.
Bear Robe has also confirmed looks for living legends Virgil Ortiz, famous for his futuristic black and white prints that mimic Cochiti Pueblo pottery motifs, and Orlando Dugi, whose bright embroidery and metallic fabrics evoke Diné’s creation stories. . She had more trouble getting work from some of the younger designers: Until now, she had missed a piece in Okuma’s series of handmade Christian Louboutin heels, but she was hot on the trail of a private collector who might lend her a pair.
“Specifically with the exhibition, I have curatorial envy of these larger institutions that have a lot more money than MoCNA,” said Bear Robe. “They may have more money, but I have access.” He has been pulling the strings more aggressively lately, as interest in indigenous fashion grows and other curators enter the picture. Crystal Bridges has recently been developing its native fashion collection, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art is trying to correct its earlier blind spots with a second edition of In America.
“Several of the key pieces that I wanted to include, the museums will not lend them,” said Bear Robe. “Some of these pieces first appeared at the SWAIA fashion show, but I can’t bring them back to the show, which is very disappointing.” She quickly clarified that she is delighted to see native designers enter featured collections. It’s just hard for her to imagine the garments found in the archives when they were once activated by the natives. “Just let me have it for the runway, then you can take it,” she said.