With an open palm, Teri Greeves gestures to a handful of small, intricately beaded Kiowa Indian cradleboards lined up inside a glass display case.
Kiowa Indians are known for their abstract beadwork motifs, she tells the small crowd that’s gathered to hear her speak at The Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia. And while these cradleboards were made in the 19th century, likely for dolls, they’re not unlike the one that swaddled Greeves, a member of the Kiowa Indian Tribe of Oklahoma, when she was a newborn on Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation in the 1970s.
“I came home in a fully beaded cradleboard. From the moment I was born, I was encased in glass beads,” she says. Her Italian father made the wooden spines to anchor and support the swaddling sack, and he, together with Greeves’ Kiowa and Comanche mother, designed the beadwork. A Shoshone Indian woman, a mother figure to Greeves’ mother, beaded the design to the sack. It likely required hundreds of hours of work, says Greeves, and it makes her feel extraordinarily loved.
She talks about the diaper bag her “fashionista” mother had beaded to match, and how, after substantial begging from a very young Greeves, her Shoshone “aunt” showed her how to bead a pair of shoes.
“I’m rambling on about my family life, but I want to give you some background on how I exist here, standing in front of you,” says Greeves. She wants to explain how she and her beadwork came to be at The Fralin, among these older pieces created in her medium, by her people, who endured physical and emotional brutality, poverty, racism, disenfranchisement, and other horrors, so that Greeves could tell her stories, and their stories, with beads.
“History…informs content,” says Greeves. “The more you know about a particular people, the more you will understand what you’re looking at.”
The exhibition, “Reflections: Native Art Across Generations,” is the first show that Adriana Greci Green, curator of the indigenous arts of the Americas, has curated at The Fralin since her arrival in 2016. For the exhibition, she considered the strengths of The Fralin’s collection and the relevance of these pieces to Native American people, particularly to contemporary Native American artists working in the same or a similar medium.
“It’s really about their voices coming through for us” as viewers of their art, she says.
Greci Green collaborated with four prominent contemporary Native American women artists to select pieces for the exhibition: Greeves, known for her beadwork; Wendy Red Star, an Apsáalooke (Crow) multimedia artist known for her photography; Lily Hope, a Tlingit weaver who is one of few living practitioners of Chilkat weaving; and Kay WalkingStick, a Cherokee landscape painter.
Each artist chose from pieces in The Fralin’s collection to show in conversation with her own work, and wrote a wall panel describing the selections.
Most of The Fralin’s Native American art collection has never been on display. The museum received its first gift of such work from Lady Nancy Astor in 1937—a crate of pieces that late 19th and early 20th century anthropologists collected rather dubiously (i.e., stole) from various tribes and pinned to the wall of the American Indian-themed grill house restaurant in the extravagant Hotel Astor in New York City. The crate sat, unopened, until the 1970s. From that collection, Hope chose a woven Chilkat robe to face opposite a child-size mannequin wearing her woven “Little Watchman” ensemble.
The Fralin has about 700 Native American and around 2,000 pre-Columbian objects in its collection, thanks to various gifts over the years. Someone whose uncle owned a trading post gave the beaded Kiowa items, says Greci Green, and the jacket that Red Star chose to show with her “Medicine Crow & The 1880 Crow Peace Delegation” annotated photography series are from yet another gift.
Greci Green recently (responsibly and ethically) acquired for the museum some contemporary Native American artists’ works, like Rick Bartow’s “Salmon Boy” drawing, exhibited alongside WalkingStick’s “Bear Paw Battlefield #2.”
The artists help Greci Green research the collection as well. Greeves grew up in her mother’s trading post full of artwork from many different Native American tribes, can discern, often via beadwork motifs and materials, the origin of cradleboards, moccasins, beaded bags, and other clothing. She can tell what tribe, or combination of tribes, the artist belonged to or grew up around. And if she doesn’t know, she likely knows someone who does.
“I always appreciate seeing the historic stuff,” Greeves says in the museum, taking a long look at a pair of beaded and extravagantly fringed Kiowa men’s moccasins; they weren’t likely meant for walking through dirt, mud, or grass, she explains, but for showing off while riding a horse.
“The historic stuff is the foundation for what I do; I couldn’t work without it,” Greeves adds as she shifts her gaze to a nearby pair of equally impractical footwear: high-heeled, lace-up, high-top sneakers covered in glossy pink beads. Greeves calls them “Rez Pride/Rez Girls,” and she beaded them as an ode to the girls she grew up with who were at once talented athletes earning basketball scholarships to college so that they might leave the reservation, and brilliant jingle dress dancers too proud of their Native American identities and traditions to abandon them entirely.
“More than anything, I’m a storyteller,” says Greeves as she looks from shoe to moccasin to cradleboard to tapestry, and to the other works in the show, stringing them together with her glance, each one linking the past to the present to the future. “I just use beads as my medium.”
Wendy Red Star, an Apsáalooke (Crow) multimedia artist known for her photography and her annotations of C.M. Bell’s late-19th-century anthropological photographs of a Crow delegation to Washington, D.C., will be in town to discuss her work on November 13 at 6:30pm in Campbell Hall. The Fralin Museum will stay open late that day so those wishing to attend Red Star’s talk can view “Reflections” beforehand.