Nadema Agard_Headshot Photo Credit Leo Correa QCC

Nadema Agard Draws on Feminine Iconography and Symbolism to Connect with Her Ancestral Past

Published Tuesday, Oct 25, 2022

(opens in a new window) Nadema Agard, a Cherokee, Lakota, and Powhatan creative, has maintained her artistic practice for more than four decades. Through her visual arts practice, Agard creates devotional works that meditate on her roles as a woman, mother, Indigenous world citizen, and Native North American, to name a few. In this interview, Agard discusses the role feminine iconography and symbolism play in her art and her ongoing curatorial work at the Bruce Reynolds Memorial Garden in New York.
How would you describe your artistic practice for people who are new to your work? 

Nadema Agard: My artwork has an individualistic style that draws upon cosmic subject matter. It has a global agenda from an Indigenous perspective and reflects the interconnection of myself as woman, mother, Indigenous world citizen, Native North American, spiritual being and warrior.

What informs the content of your work? Are there specific themes that you find yourself responding or returning to?

NA: My work has been influenced by the ceremonies of the Onondaga Longhouse, the Hopi Kiva on Second Mesa, the Full Moon and Sweat Lodge ceremonies of the Ojibwe, the Sundance of the Lakota, a pilgrimage to Medicine Wheel, Wyoming, Nanih Waiya Mound of the Choctaw, the Mayan Pyramid in Chichen Itza and Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, home of goddess Pele.

By far, the Medicine Wheel is a recurring theme infused in different ways almost like a visual mantra.

What influences your creative process?

NA: Sacred feminine iconography and spirituality is the subject matter of much of my work. My works are devotional pieces made in reverence to all the creative and regenerative forces of the universe with the harmonious balance of those powers.  My Indigenous genetic memory combined with my urban/global perspective has an ancient, inclusive vision with individuality that can survive and thrive.

Lakota cultural frameworks seem to play an important role in your work; how are you influenced by Lakota language and symbolism?

NA: Indigenous women of the Northern Plains were the first abstract artists using earth painting on rawhide.  The Lakota women painted the Lakota language of symbolism to represent profound cosmic truths.  These symbols are a non-verbal language that connects me to the eternal world of truth in my genetic memory.  The sound of the words, recall an ancient memory more expansive than the colonizer’s language, into the present time. Lakota language and symbolism are the keys that connects me with the unseen world and the ancestors.

Can you tell us a bit more about the exhibitions that you curate at the Bruce Reynolds Memorial Garden and the importance of that space for your community?

NA: In 2015, I was in a group exhibition and decided to print banners of the images and hang them in the Garden Gazebo to encourage visitors to go and see the show.  That was when I became Curator of Gallery In The Gazebo, an outdoor seasonal gallery (April to December).  These paper shows included work by mostly Inwood (Upper Manhattan Section) residents.  The second year I installed a photography show with a focus on neighborhood landmarks. A well-known local artist installed his collage globes, and a Mexican born photographer did an installation on the ceiling about climate change protests.

In 2017, children’s work was introduced that inspired a corn husk doll making workshop led by myself and an origami workshop lead by one of the children. That year I also included an emerging artist works of NYC water towers.  Our intergeneration show included work by children and adults inspired by the collage globes shown the prior year.  In connection with a grant program focusing on Indigenous peoples of Standing Rock and Cheyenne River communities, I showed my Lakota-centric images done when I worked for the Tribe.

In 2018, with the continuation of the grant program focusing on Algonquian nation communities of New York Metro Area and New England, I installed pages of a children’s book about an Algonquian nation boy with long braids called SHANE.  I also installed a two person show of artists from the nearby Shinnecock Nation and a group show of Indigenous artist from the Western Hemisphere.  In collaboration with an Inwood art organization, I installed a one-person show of European cityscapes.

Inspired by the four sacred colors of the Medicine Wheel, the 2019 season focused on diversity and the equal representation of Asian, African-Diasporic, Euro-American and Indigenous artists.  Each group had a show.

In 2021, inspired by the vision of the Lakota holy man, Black Elk, I installed my works from a recent exhibition and revisited the Medicine Wheel with a group show of woman and then another of men of the four sacred colors.

This 7th year with an artist grant, I showed work of men in vertical orientation and works by women in a horizontal orientation based on the vertical and horizontal axis of the Medicine Wheel to show the balance in all things.  The collage artist installed images on the ceiling of the Gazebo as well.

The space is important to have a diverse representation of artists work to educate and uplift the Inwood community and attract those of other neighborhoods.  It serves as a venue to bring attention to the many talented and creative people who have their work shown whether they are from Inwood or elsewhere.

As an Indigenous artist, I get to share culturally to a community whose history has strong Indigenous narratives about the sale of Manhattan Island in Inwood Hill Park, where Henry Hudson docked his Half Moon (Ship) and visited the Indigenous people who have had an ongoing presence and continually gather for events to present day like Drums Along the Hudson.

Into the 20th century, Inwood Hill Park had a museum run by an Indigenous woman, but it was shut down by Robert Moses. I want to continue her legacy.

As you reflect on a career spanning over 30 years, what do you think we can learn from some of the successes and challenges faced by you and other elder Indigenous artists?

NA: You must have integrity and originality that reflects the unique person you are.  Only then can you pursue your vision with a vengeance.  You must also grow and evolve with whatever environment surrounds you so that you can relate universally.  And, always project truth and do your best.

How do you think art institutions can meaningfully support Indigenous artists and communities? What action or change would you like to see within the art world?

NA: Art institutions need the follow the vision of the Medicine Wheel where all are equally represented, not just given a sliver of the pie but the rightful portion.

Step 1:  Learning about the historical evolution of the arts in Indigenous communities.  That means providing a cultural-specific historical context for the content so that the work of any contemporary person can be understood in its evolution.

Step 2:  Giving Indigenous communities the opportunities to show their work and learning how the definition of art can differ from that of the mainstream.  For example, understanding the arts and the sacred in Native America/Turtle Island!

Step 3: That means, not creating an Indigenous art ghetto by showing group exhibitions exclusively but integrating Indigenous art into the mainstream by including more Indigenous artists in group shows with non-Indigenous artists.

Based on your career so far, is there any advice that you’d give to emerging artists?

NA: I recommend having humility and respect for those who came before to pave the way.  Learn about your own particular art history along with that of the world art history with an equal focus on the arts of all the four colors of humanity (Indigenous, Asian, African and European).   For me, in addition to the Euro-centric art I was taught, it was a real education as an Indigenous artist to learn about groundbreaking work of 20th century artists like George Morrison, Oscar Howe, Allan Hauser, Pop Chalee and Helen Hardin, to name a few.

Learn your techniques as best as you can from the best. Audrey Flack taught me watercolor, Knox Martin taught me painting tips, Robert Kaupelis taught me drawing and Bob Blackburn taught me printing, but Paul Klee gave a crash course on color.

  • Essays — Nadema Agard Draws on Feminine Iconography and Symbolism to Connect with Her Ancestral Past, Oct 25, 2022