Native American Body of Art - Opening July 7 during OKC''s Paseo Arts District's First Friday Art Walk

OKLAHOMA CITY – It’s been in the back of his mind for 17 years. The painting that didn’t sell.

“It was a piece with two women sitting there. They were bare-breasted, sitting in a chair,” says Brent Learned, Cheyenne and Arapaho, of his first nude art piece.

Learned was doing a show in Wichita, Kansas, when the painting caught the eye of the Mid-America All-Indian Center’s museum director. The director wanted to purchase the piece for the museum’s collection but needed approval from the head of the museum board.

She refused.

“She was there. She came up. She looked at it and goes, ‘No, we’re not going to purchase this piece,’” Learned says.

In disbelief, he asked why.

“‘Well, sir, we’re a museum – this is a nude. It’s not going to mix.’”

Learned pointed out the museum next door was showing an exhibition of nude works by Peter Paul Rubens, one of the most famous European artists of the Baroque era.

“And she was like, ‘Well, we have kids that come to this museum.’” Learned says.
He’s still baffled by getting that response, yet not surprised.

“We just happen to be in the Bible Belt, where you have that kind of thinking – that mentality that thinks that way. Now is the time to start talking about those issues and opening those doors,” he says.

A Facebook post prompted Learned to start questioning why artists never depict Native Americans in the nude and he asked his friends what they thought.

“You’ve been to a lot of museums. Have you ever seen Native Americans depicted that way?

“Did you ever question yourself, why?

“We didn’t either,” he says.

“I look at it as, as Native Americans, we’ve never really had a renaissance when it comes to art. You look at all the cultures around the world - they all had a renaissance when it came to art, especially Europeans. You see a lot of nude work from the masters,” he says.

In response to results from his informal poll, he asked some artists whose work he admires to join him in creating an exhibit - Native American Body of Art.

“The title alone tells you what it is going to be. I think it’s going to be one of those shows that’s going to be groundbreaking and people are going to come just to see people from different tribes express themselves in a way that’s never been done before,” Learned says.

“A lot of people think that nude art among Native Americans is taboo and whatnot. But we’ve never had a chance to really showcase that.”

Native American Body of Art will officially open during the Paseo Arts District’s First Friday Gallery Art Walk, July 7, at the Shakespeare in the Park Gallery, 2920 Paseo, Oklahoma City.

Kathryn McGill, co-founder of Shakespeare in the Park, says she’s thrilled Native American Body of Art is her gallery’s first Native American exhibit - and doesn’t bat an eye that it’s a nude show.

“Well, we’re theater and we tend to push the envelope as well,” she says, adding that the samples of work she’s seen are beautiful and “not salacious in any way. It’s just the human form.”

She met Learned through mutual friends and calls him a “great spokesperson.”

“I love listening to him talk. I have the same feelings about theater and the importance to the community,” McGill says.

Learned approached artists of varied backgrounds and styles to represent an intertribal community, encompassing a diverse geography to tell the story of Native American Body of Art – from the Arizona desert to the Southeast woodlands, the Great Plains, and beyond the Alaskan tundra.

“I’ve never really seen Native American nude art. So I’m kind of curious to see what other Native American artists… what kind of work they would produce for that,” he says.

George Levi, Southern Cheyenne/Southern Arapaho/Oglala Lakota, specializes in Cheyenne style ledger art, and he’s already created several pieces for the show. Traditional images and symbols fill each page, from the depiction of a sacred mountain to belts symbolizing captured cavalry swords. His art stays true to his heritage and real life – and sometimes, real life was nude.

“We lived in different environments so we dressed differently… dressed accordingly,” he says, pointing out that summers on the Plains were hot and it wasn’t uncommon for women to go bare while going about their everyday business.

“We’re not trying to push the envelope. It’s just the way we lived – live,” Levi says. “Back in the day, it wasn’t an envelope. It was normal life.”

He points to the work of Edwin S. Curtis, best known for his photography of the American Indian. Curtis published volumes of photos documenting Indian life in the early 1900s.

“It was a natural thing before everything got hypersexualized through assimilation and Manifest Destiny and stuff like that - churches coming in and telling that this was wrong,” Levi says, his fingertips resting on his ledger style rendering of a bare-breasted woman.

“From the 1870s, 1880s on, we had to change – had to try and meld into a dominant society. Through a lot of those things [like] religion, breasts - the human body - was hypersexualized. We were repressed for a long time.”

Learned agrees.

“In order to control a society, you must repress them. And one of the ways to do it is through their art, through their music and through their dance. When you repress that, you’ve conquered in a way,” Learned says.

“You can buy a National Geographic, open it up and see a tribe in Africa where a woman is bare-breasted, wearing a necklace and not think anything of it. But if it’s a Native American, ‘Oh my God it’s wrong, it’s bad,’ and yet you can go to any museum and see every race and culture but you never see any Native Americans depicted that way,” he says.

“We’ve [Cheyenne and Arapaho people] had 140 years, almost, of being dominated, being told what is right and what’s wrong. This is just an expression, but for us to be an artist, a be a true artist, we have to express ourselves,” Levi says.

“But this is not really an expression of ourselves,” he pauses, “in a sense it is, but this is just about who we are and where we come from.”

Mary Beth Timothy, Cherokee, admits the show is putting her outside her comfort zone.

“I am pretty conservative, so showing this type of work will be somewhat of a challenge, but I feel that this is an important show. I think too many people that hear ‘nude art’ imagine erotic or even pornographic images. I hope this showing will help at least a few to see it differently,” she says.

She’s tackling body image in her show piece, depicting a woman with a body that “by today’s standards, would be less than perfect.” She’s heavy, has stretch marks and a C-section scar. The woman is physically opening herself up to show her inner self.

“I’m trying to show that we are more than what we think we look like on the outside. We are our past and our present. We are our family, our friends, our experiences. We are made up of so many things. It’s those things and our individual stories that mold us and shape us into the beautiful beings we are,” she says.

Brenda Mackey, Choctaw, was pushed out of her comfort zone, too. Learned had requested the artists send him a few samples that he could share promoting the show and he recalls the first she sent with a chuckle.

“Her first two pieces… I could see there was some shyness and some hesitance, ‘Do I cross the line or do I not?’” Learned says.

Mackey’s first submission was the back of a seated nude woman. The next piece depicted the woman turning.

Learned laughs. “So, even among ourselves, when it came to doing it, we were kind of timid.”
“At that point, I don’t know if it’s going to be a series of a lady turning or [what],” he gestures helplessly, still chuckling. “Then, she literally jumped over that line.”

Her third piece was full frontal. The woman is languidly stretching, as if she’s just awakened.

“I like the whole idea. It shows a softer, sensual side in my paintings,” Mackey says.

Learned calls her finished work “breathtaking” and is encouraging the other artists to embrace the theme.

“I am exploring this to expand the freedom of my own expression in art. There is so much beauty with all of the Native nations past and present. By not limiting ourselves to what we think is appropriate, or what others think is appropriate, we can expand upon our own freedoms and growth as a people,” says Joe Hopkins, Muscogee Creek.

Born and raised in Oklahoma, Hopkins is a self-taught artist who blends pop art style and vivid color into work that combines past with present.

“It’s an old story, just done in a new way that hadn’t been done. I can’t think of any Native American all-nude art exhibition… The work we’re about to show is something you wouldn’t typically see,” he says.

The exhibit will be on display throughout July.

For more information visit the show’s Facebook page:

Native American Body of Art
July 1-31
Shakespeare in the Park Gallery
2920 Paseo, OKC