In clear view
Great Basin Native Artists move from obscurity to recognition
“It’s interesting how much is not on the internet,” said Melissa Melero-Moose. She’s a contemporary painter and a member of the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, and it makes her nervous when people say things like, “If it’s not Google-able, it doesn’t exist.”
In 2014, Melero-Moose, along with painter Ben Aleck, started a group called the Great Basin Native Artists. Among the group’s goals is to raise the profiles of Native artists.
“That’s what inspired me,” Melero-Moose said. “I was just trying to get these regional artists, trying to get people to know that just because they’re not Google-able, that doesn’t mean they’re not out there.”
There’s another reason the group started, too. Some artists were producing plenty of salable work, Melero-Moose among them. She makes abstract acrylic paintings—often with natural materials such as pine nuts or grasses embedded in them—in her studio, a garden shed painted bright blue, in her yard in Hungry Valley, a remote residential neighborhood in far north Sparks that’s part of the Reno Sparks Indian Colony. And she has a sizable following as a painter. But still, it was difficult to get good shows.
She mentioned that the Nevada Museum of Art held a group show of artwork by local Native artists in 2012. And the next most recent one, at the Nevada State Museum, had been 12 years prior.
“If we had to wait every decade just to have a group show, that was OK, but not the best, you know?” she said.
She said that a lot of artists weren’t creating or sharing their work because they didn’t think anybody would want to see it. Even Jack Malotte, the now well-known Western Shoshone and Paiute artist, was “holed up in Duckwater and doing silkscreening. But if he had, potentially, places that wanted to see his skill and his artwork, he would [have been] all over the place. And he would [have made] a full living off of it. And so would a lot of our artists.”
At the group’s outset, its members weren’t exactly sure what course it would take. “When it first started, we didn’t even really know: Is it a group? Is it a movement? Is it just a bunch of us showing?” said Melero-Moose. “At one point … we were meeting monthly. And then looking for artists.”
They started setting up booths at events like the Stewart Indian School powwow. “And that was amazing,” she said. “We met all of these people, and people invited us to do random shows, from church hallways to the education office in Carson City, and the artists were selling. It was great. … We started to get a little bit of a list. That turned into a website. If I found any news—if I found a postcard for a show, either hard copy or online, I would keep it.”
Not just a generation gap
Topaz Jones is a member of GBNA. She thinks of her paintings as contemporary images that pick up where traditional Native artists left off. She borrows motifs from objects such as baskets, translating them into abstracted paintings, prints and drawings that look like they’re as much about the future as the past.
“I feel like there’s this disconnect,” Jones said. “There’s a lot of people that, through their art, kind of stay stuck in the past, in old designs, the way that people used to look back in 1800s or further back. There’s, like, a time where time stops, where creativity stops.” She has a theory about why these artists hesitate to embrace more modern aesthetics—and it’s not due to a run-of-the-mill generation gap.
“People stop creating because there’s so much trauma,” she said. She mentioned Indian boarding schools, the institutions that forbade Native children from speaking their own languages, keeping their long hair, and wearing their own clothes. (See “School spirit,” feature story, Jan. 4, 2018). In 1891, the federal government made attendance compulsory and made it legal to forcibly remove Native children from their families. Eventually, the kidnapping and abuse that marked boarding schools’ early decades subsided, but their legacy still affects many families—including Jones'. Her grandmother, now in her 80s, was a boarding school student.
“A lot of people don’t really understand how restrictive life was for Native people,” Jones said. “I feel like the nation thinks Native people are really spiritual people and have these beliefs. So much of that stuff was really lost early on.”
“People have a hard time moving forward from that gap,” she said, and this is where her affinity for modern imagery comes in.
“When I think of those old designs, there’s a lot of tribes that have a close connection with their heritage and their designs, how they pass them down from family to family. If the genocide never happened, if the conquest never happened, wouldn’t we just be moving forward with our designs? … A lot of people don’t realize that it was only in [recent decades] that we started getting our rights.”
The federal government passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978. The Native American Languages Act—disavowing past policies that forbade Native languages—and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, were both passed in 1990.
Defining a region
Jones—who’s originally from Owyhee, in far north Elko County, and now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico—said that her affiliation with the group has affected her career in a few different ways. “GBNA keeps me relevant,” she said. “I get to create pieces and send them off to Melissa.” The work she sends to Melero-Moose gets exhibited in group shows—including one that’s up at Sierra Arts, 17 S. Virginia St., right now—which offers some peace of mind, especially given that Jones balances the job of making and marketing her work with the job of being a mother to her young children.
The group has also led her to some newfound attention. A PhD student in Germany, Kristina Baudemann, found Jones through GBNA and ended up including her in a book.
And, Jones said, being connected with the group “allows a platform to be relevant in where I’m from.” While she likes living in Santa Fe for its bustling art and culture scenes, she does sometimes feel a bit removed—in Pueblo and Navajo territory—from her Shoshone roots.
If it seems that a group with “Great Basin” in its name and a member in New Mexico might have a confusingly wide geographic range, there’s a good reason for that.
Melero-Moose comes from a Nevada family, but she was born in San Francisco in 1974, not long after her parents were sent there as part of yet another national assimilation effort. The government offered to relocate Native Americans to urban areas, and Melero-Moose said that people living in poverty on reservations felt that they had little choice. Her mother, years earlier, had had some negative experiences at an Indian boarding school, but as a child from an impoverished family with seven children, Melero-Moose said, “She was just happy to have meals and her own bed.” Her mother had similarly mixed feelings about moving to the city. She was excited but scared. Ultimately, she missed her family and returned to Nevada.
Melero-Moose was raised in Reno. She describes herself as “part Paiute from California—which is why I didn’t just call it the Nevada Native American group, or something like that.”
Over the last five years, the group has grown to include approximately 150 artists, including some in California, Oregon, Idaho and Utah. Melero-Moose has traveled around the West to events like basket conventions to connect with more artists, and her inclination is to remain geographically inclusive.
"[GBNA] branched from the Eastern Sierra all the way to the West Coast,” she said. “We might have to rename ourselves now.”
“The group has slowly but surely started this movement of artists coming out of the woodwork,” Jones said.
“Since we started the group and exhibiting for ourselves, people have been producing way more,” Melero-Moose said. “We get together on occasion for these art receptions … Before that, everyone was in their kitchens drawing, and gave it away. And nobody got to know them and see their art.”
The postcard collection that she’d started saving early on quickly evolved into a bona fide archive. In 2018, the Nevada Museum of Art granted her a fellowship, which came with funding to further research Native artists. As of June, the museum now houses the group’s records. Megan Bellister, the NMA’s archive assistant, said that they will eventually be digitized and available online for all to browse.
Melero-Moose has also been working as a consultant with the NMA—advising on questions like “Who should we get to drum at an event?"—and Stewart Indian School, which closed as a boarding school in 1980 and is now a museum and cultural center slated to expand soon. She’s also on the advisory board of the Lilley Museum of Art, which opened this year at the University of Nevada, Reno.
“She’s been a really great adviser,” said Paul Baker Prindle, who was the director of the Lilley Museum as it was being conceived and established. He said that Melero-Moose brought up some issues that helped the fledgling museum develop its curatorial policies—both inside and outside the boardroom.
“With Melissa, some of the most powerful advising happened outside of meetings,” Baker Prindle said. “We would go grab dinner, grab beers and talk about what’s going on in the art world. I think one of the biggest issues facing museums and indigenous artists is that museums have not traditionally supported their work. And when they have, it’s in anthropology museums.”
“We definitely get pigeonholed,” Melero-Moose said. “Like showing at natural history museums and only tribal museums or Native American-focused museums.”
“Traditional indigenous work is written off as craft,” Baker Prindle said. “We had a lot of conversations about that. I would not have been able to recraft the identity of the mission … if Melissa wasn’t there.”
“Ask a person on the street to name a Great Basin Native Artist,” Baker Prindle said. Five years ago, it would have been harder to do. More recently, artists like Jack Malotte, Jean LaMarr, and Melero-Moose come up in art-world conversations a lot more often.
“She put these people into the vernacular,” he said.
“Changing people’s relation to these art forms involves a lot of easy questions but also a lot of difficult questions,” he added. “What underlies it is an ethnocentric notion of what art is.”
Artists and museums nationally are having similar conversations. Dyani White Hawk is an artist from Minnesota who is German, Welsh and Lakota Sioux. She had an exhibition at the Lilley earlier this year, and she’s publicly posed this question: If major 20th-century American artists like Agnes Martin and Jackson Pollock have cited Native artists as influences, why does their work tend not to appear in museum collections?
“The answer is racism—period,” said Baker Prindle. “We think that art that non-white people make is ‘craft.’ And that’s crap. … I think anyone who’s working in contemporary art—we decide what’s contemporary based on cultural conversations. Our notion of what contemporary is is defined by us. It’s not this notion that came down from the heavens.”
“One of the things that I think is so important is that at least a few museums need to step up and start collecting traditional indigenous art,” he added. “Then, other museums will follow. The art world is like that. He said that the conversations over dinner and beers with Melero-Moose gave him the courage—his word—to recraft UNR’s curatorial mission.
“She gave me the language to talk about it,” he said.
“Museums are aware that there is a new breed of curator that is coming in and attempting to have a full representation of art in America and art in general,” Melero-Moose said. “And, I think, around here, Nevada Museum of Art is ahead of their time, doing the archive and doing the solo show … for Jack Malotte.”
But, she noted, Malotte’s show “shouldn’t be the first [Native artist’s solo show] we’ve had that I can think of—ever. … There’s still tons of work to do at museums internationally, about education, about Native people, just in general.”
And Jones brought up a couple of problems she’d like to see addressed.
“The big museums … really go after who’s popular,” she said.
Jones likened the museum representation of Native artists to a high school popularity contest. “It’s not about the quality of the work sometimes,” she said. “It’s about something else. People are getting overlooked.”
“I think right now there’s a huge market for appropriation, where you basically take some kind of pop thing and turn it Native,” Jones added. “It becomes very popular real fast. It’s kind of like eye candy.”
“With social media, anyone can be famous in a couple minutes,” she said. “It just depends on who you know. … There’s a part of that process that’s a little too instant.”
Jones would not mind living in a world where artists’ reputations took more to build than a knack for being an Instagram influencer. And, as she and Melero-Moose both know, a lot of good artwork is, well, still un-Google-able.