Native Art Gallery Looks to the Future With a Nod to the Past

(Courtesy of Center for Native Futures)(Courtesy of Center for Native Futures)

In a landmark building in the Loop, a band of artists launched a new art gallery unlike any in Chicago. Across from Federal Plaza stands the Marquette Building, built in 1895. Its newest tenant is the forward-looking Center for Native Futures.

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The inaugural exhibition showcases dynamic work from artists representing 19 Native tribes. The center was founded by artists on a mission to make an epicenter of Native creativity.

One founder is Chris Pappan, a visual artist who exhibits internationally and helped shape the “Native Truths” exhibition that debuted at the Field Museum in 2022. Pappan is an enrolled member of the Kanza Nation and has Lakota heritage.

“We’re not making pottery for tourists or dreamcatchers to hang in your car,” Pappan told WTTW News. “We are raising important issues of identity, politics, history and survival in our work. We are visualizing and activating our future selves by not kowtowing to pressures of what Native art is supposed to look like or what other people may think. We are defining it for the here and now.”

Pappan’s work is layered with history and alludes to the “ledger art” made by 19th century Native prisoners who made art on ledgers and other scrap paper. His wife, Debra Yepa-Pappan, is also a co-founder and artist. She is of Jemez Pueblo descent.

Chris Pappan’s work alludes to the “ledger art” made by 19th century Native prisoners who made art on ledgers and other scrap paper. (Marc Vitali / WTTW News)Chris Pappan’s work alludes to the “ledger art” made by 19th century Native prisoners who made art on ledgers and other scrap paper. (Marc Vitali / WTTW News)

“This is really Chris and Debra’s baby,” said artist Monica Rickert-Bolter, a citizen of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation. “They had the vision to do this over 20 years ago. Most of us are from the Great Lakes region or have Chicago ties. We’re all mixed-identity Natives trying to figure out how we keep our traditional practices alive, but also showcase how we’ve evolved and how these things are still continuing.”

The artists have a choice location in the Marquette Building because one of their primary supporters is the MacArthur Foundation, which owns the building. The Marquette is also home to historic Tiffany mosaics — murals that depict the life of the building’s namesake, the French explorer Father Jacques Marquette.

As Rickert-Bolter explained: “There are these beautiful Tiffany murals that display the narrative behind the Jesuit priest Marquette, but it’s problematic. The imagery of the Native people are clearly Plains (as opposed to Potawatomie). It’s very romanticized and uplifting, showing how the Europeans tamed these Natives, these savages, and all that.”

In January 2024 an exhibition will address the problems with the Tiffany murals and explore the history of the Potawatomie people in the area.

(Courtesy of Center for Native Futures)(Courtesy of Center for Native Futures)

Artists of the Center for Native Futures refer to “Indigenous futurism,” an ever-evolving term meant to expand possibilities by “imagining our realities without colonial limitations.” They developed the nonprofit gallery with key funding from the Chicago-based Terra Foundation for American Art and opened in September.

“The reaction we’ve been getting in the gallery is showing me that people here have been starving for accurate, contemporary representations of Native people,” Pappan said. “I’m glad we’re able to share that in our hometown.”

The gallery also appears to be the first of its kind.

“In most recent memory, we are the first,” Rickert-Bolter said. “But we don’t want to be the last.”

The inaugural exhibition, “Native Futures,” runs through May 17, 2024, at the Center for Native Futures, 56 W. Adams St. in Chicago.


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