“We definitely get pigeonholed,” said Melissa Melero-Moose. She’s an artist and Northern Paiute who lives in Hungry Valley, a remote residential neighborhood in north Sparks that’s part of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. Historically, she and the region’s other Native artists have been more likely to see their work displayed in natural history museums and tribal museums than in mainstream art museums.
In 2012, the Nevada Museum of Art held a group show of the region’s Native artists. The Nevada State Museum held one 12 years before that.
“If we had to wait every decade just to have a group show, that was OK, but not the best, you know,” said Melero-Moose. “Artists aren’t creating, sharing their art, because they don’t think anybody wants to see it.”
In 2014, Melero-Moose and Ben Aleck, a painter who lives in Nixon, started a group called the Great Basin Native Artists. They knew they wanted better visibility for Native artists. Aside from that goal, they weren’t sure, at first, exactly what form the group might 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?,” Melero-Moose said. The artists met monthly and started looking for more artists. A booth at a powwow at the Stewart Indian School garnered some attention and momentum, which led to more booths at regional art and craft fairs.
“You get to share with people where you’re from, what you’re about, what your artwork’s about,” Melreo-Moose said. “And that was amazing. 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. … Since we started the group and exhibiting for ourselves, people have been producing way more.”
The group has held exhibitions together at venues like the Maidu Museum and Historic Site in Roseville, California, Stewart Indian School in Carson City, and the Pyramid Lake Museum in Nixon. Today, GBNA has about 150 artists on its mailing list and 25 or so who organize shows and events together—including some who are household names in the Nevada art world: Jack Malotte from Duckwater, Reno’s Ray Valdez, and Jean LaMarr from Susanville, California.
But are Native artists still pigeonholed? Melero-Moose said that she’s seen more Native artists’ work in art museums over the last 10 years or so, but she’d still like to see larger institutions take their work more seriously.
The Nevada Museum of Art has taken some steps in that direction—an annual festival celebrating Native art, music and dance; a retrospective containing decades worth of Jack Malotte’s prints and drawings; and a curatorial focus on the art of a huge region the museum has deemed “The Greater West,” which means places that have been colonized in the last few hundred years or so. (The 2017-18 exhibition Unsettled, which explored this region’s contemporary artists in depth, wins my votes for “NMA exhibition I most wish was a permanent fixture” and “Exhibition for which I recommend you read the catalog.”)
Meanwhile, for the GBNA’s entire five-year lifespan, Melero-Moose has been saving records—things like postcards, news clippings, posters and catalogs—in her Hungry Valley studio. She’s been traveling to basketry conferences and other events to meet and study more artists. She’s promoted Native artists’ work and served as a consultant for places like the Stewart Indian School and UNR’s Lilley Museum. (If, say, your museum needs some background on the region’s basketmakers, or your event needs a Native American drummer, and you don’t know who to call, she’s the one to call.)
Melero-Moose’s efforts led to her receiving the 2018 Humanities Rising Star Award from Nevada Humanities and a yearlong research fellowship with the NMA, during which she expanded and organized GBNA’s records and, in June, donated them to the museum. They now make up the Great Basin Native Artists Archive and Directory, one of several archives the museum keeps for scholars and researchers. (Other NMA archives include materials on Burning Man and “Land Arts of the American West.”)
Archive Assistant Megan Bellister said that the GBNA archive will eventually be digitized and available online for all to browse. Curator Ann Wolfe said that the NMA staff plans to follow a national trend to make art museum archives—“materials that are essentially locked away”—more accessible to the general public. Melero-Moose said she’s relieved that she no longer keeps her papers in wildfire-prone Hungry Valley, where a fire burned 305 acres (though, thankfully, did not approach any houses) earlier this month.
Below are a few samples of the many items in the Great Basin Native Artists Archive and Directory.