Indigenous Contemporary Art

Contemporary indigenous artists tell in their works about their community's experiences, and make the tribal heritage their most significant artistic expression. They are frequently politically active, giving voice to what is often not covered by the world press.

In this article we will explore eight artists who have managed to commemorate their millenary culture in a mix of ancient and new, of past and present, without losing sight of their origins.

It is clear by now that artistic expression in indigenous groups has been a means of emancipation and the ultimate expression of some of the difficulties that could not be told otherwise, and sometimes carries within itself unfortunate events.

The indigenous contemporary art scene is vibrant and has only begun a few decades ago to be explored by the international art market.

REPUBLIC OF BENIN - African masks, representing contemporary issues

Recycled Mask

Recycled Mask

Romuald Hazoume

Romuald Hazoumè is a sculptor and painter from the Republic of Benin born in 1962 in Porto Novo. His major inspirations are the economic and social contexts of African countries, the history of slavery and colonialism.

The media used by the artist are often waste products found in garbage dumps, and his most known work series is his Tank Masks. The goal is to send a strong social and political message on the smuggling of petrol between Benin and Nigeria. Furthermore, the plastic masks appear ruined, dirty and topped with styled wigs. The artist wants to criticize how the western beauty standards are slowly swiping off the African tribal culture and customs, and the attempt of some African women to eliminate part of their somatic traits with wigs and makeup. Learn more here

CANADA - A contemporary approach to tribal art and traditions

Chief Beau Dick

Chief Beau Dick

D Films

Chief Beau Dick (1955 - 2017) was a woodcarver and painter from the Indigenous Peoples group of Kwakwaka'wakw. His tribal roots were his main inspiration; however, he wanted to include contemporary, western and Asian influences in his work marrying past and present. The celebration of his heritage in his famous Masks series gained him recognition and success in the 80s. The masks were created for ceremonial purposes, and they were "danced" to fully activate their force and reaffirm the power of family and clan, as well as the human connection with the supernatural world. Beau Dick is considered one of the leading artists of Canadian Indigenous art. Take a deeper look into Chief Beau Dick’s work here.

POLAND - Romany art, breaking stereotypes and resurfacing lost artworks and history

Małgorzata Mirga-Tas “Puther or Jakha (open your eyes)”

Małgorzata Mirga-Tas “Puther or Jakha (open your eyes)”

Photo Marcin Tas

Małgorzata Mirga-Tas is an artist, activist and anti-racism campaigner of Bergitka Roma origins. She lives in Poland, in a Roma settlement in Czarna Góra in the Spisz region. She dedicated some of her works to Samudaripe – The Roma Genocide during the Second World War, and she is involved in several different social projects fighting against social exclusion and racial discrimination. Her work's primary technique is sculpting in cardboard, and her drawings and paintings are drawn with the use of different media, such as pastels, different types of paints, newspapers, sequins, cardboard and fabrics. Roma typical designs, colours and motifs, are the main protagonists of her work exploring Roma people and their everyday lives. She also fights for recognition in the contemporary art scene of artists’ from Romany backgrounds. Click here for more info about the artist and her work.

AUSTRALIA - 40,000 years of artistic expression, when past meets present

Lappi Lappi Dreaming 

Lappi Lappi Dreaming 

Christine Napanangka Michaels

The aboriginal art is well known for the tradition of passing on from generation to generation songs, rituals, dances, symbols and patterns. The stories of the ‘Dreamtime’ are represented in all aboriginal and are so sacred that artists need permission to paint them. Christine Napanangka Michaels is an artist born in the 80s in the Northern Territories. By using bright colours, she depicts the Jukurrpa stories, the main inspiration to all the artist's works. The artist often explores Lappi Lappi dreaming, which is the name of a rock hole and a stable source of water in Western Australia. According to the tradition, during the Jukurrpa time, a colourful snake called Warnayarra was living in the hole. One day, some women and kids started dancing and singing around Lappi Lappi, and the snake got irritated until it came out of the hole and ate them. You can take a look at her work here.

AUSTRALIA – Indigenous Art from the National Gallery of Victoria: virtual tour experience!

Talking about Aboriginal Art, the National Gallery of Victoria offers on its website virtual tours of some of the exhibitions, including one entirely related to Indigenous Art. As mentioned on the NGV website, this exhibition explores drawings and markings of figures, signs or text made on public surfaces across Indigenous Australia, from rock face to now. Some examples? Reko Rennie and Brook Andrew artists translate incisions on carved trees into fluorescent neon icons. In contrast, Josh Muir and Hannah Brontë artists are using video art to disseminate and communicate voices of dissent, trying to facilitate dialogue to effect change. Time to explore… Let's go in!

UNITED STATES - Disconnection between reality and perception of Native American People in Wendy Red Star's artworks

Baaeétitchish (One Who Is Talented)

Baaeétitchish (One Who Is Talented)

Wendy Red Star

Have you ever heard about Wendy Red Star? She’s a Native American visual artist of the Apsáalooke (Crow) lineage, born in Billings, Montana and growing up on a Crow Indian Reservation. Her main works are a kind of surreal self-portrait photographs making fun of white American culture's tendency to misrepresent Native American history. Using materials like target-brand Halloween costumes or plastic animals, Red Star shows and refuses the idealizations of American Indians as “one with nature.” Take a look at some of her colourful works on her website and listen her artworks description here.

TANZANIA - The funny Lilanga’s transition from tradition to contemporaneity

5 Shetani

5 Shetani

Georges Lilanga

Georges Lilanga (1943-2005), was a Tanzanian artist belonging to the Makonde ethnic group and internationally recognized as one of the main contemporary African artists.

He achieved international fame thanks to its particular pictorial style, characterized by a keen sense of social critique and caricature illustrating the continuity of artistic vision among the Makonde and its renewal in the context of the present day.

Lilanga's imaginary world is populated by a multitude of characters, named Shetani's, who seem to come out of cartoons. To maintain the detachment from other Makonde sculptors who depict parts of bodies assembled grotesquely to form monstrous beings, the aliens of Lilanga are more sympathetic than terrible and are represented at the moment of maximum fun like small pixies, portrayed in everyday life situations. Curious to meet Lilanga’s Shetanis? Take a look here.

INDIA - Natural elements for contemporary artworks

Celebration in tribal village

Celebration in tribal village

Warli Painting

A native of Thane district, in the state of Maharashtra, Jivya Soma Mashe (1934-2018) is the most influential spokesman for the Warli visual language, mainly based on depictions of supernatural spirits, fertility myths and scenes of everyday life. Author of paintings made entirely in white by applying a mixture of rice paste, water and gum resin on treated raw canvases, natural elements such as mud earth. Jivya Soma Mashe was among the first Indian artists to be recognized internationally. In Europe, his works were the protagonists of the legendary exhibition "Magiciens de la Terre" curated by Jean-Hubert Martin at the Center George Pompidou in Paris. His works have been exhibited all over the world and part of permanent collections at the Crafts Museum in New Delhi, at the Museum Kunstpalast, Dusseldorf and, at the Mithila Museum in Niigata, Japan. See more about Warli paintings and Jivya Soma Mashe art.


Cover photo "Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Memorial Poles" Debra and Dennis Scholl Collection