For many communities in the United States, a visit from Artrain is a celebrated event. When the museum in five railcars rolls into small towns, people of all ages travel for miles to see the paintings and sculptures on the train.

Now it’s Ann Arbor’s turn. The return of Artrain to its NEW Center headquarters on North Main Saturday through Wednesday, January 20-24, offers a rare chance to see Native Views: Influences of Modern Culture — A Contemporary Native American Art Exhibition.

Showcasing seventy works by fifty-three living Native American artists, Native Views offers unexpected and challenging perspectives on Native people and cultures. Exploring the themes of popular culture, land, science, and technology, the pieces juxtapose traditional Native American representations and artistic expressions with modern materials, images, and experiences. Threads of humor and irony weave through works that challenge stereotypical imagery, rethink spiritual icons, and respond to the destruction of nature, community, and tradition.

Guest curator Joanna O. Bigfeather, formerly of the Institute of American Indian Art Museum in Santa Fe, has selected many works that are colorful, playful, and full of the commercial and pop culture imagery familiar to the thousands of young people who visit Artrain. There’s a skateboard by Douglas Miles painted with an Apache warrior, a fabric vest from Alex Jacobs festooned with candy wrappers and Land O’Lakes butter packages, stunning beadwork by Marcus Amerman affixed to a baby carrier bought at IKEA (pictured), and a basket woven with sixteen-millimeter film by Gail E. Tremblay. Coyotes are dressed in platform shoes and leather, Spiderman speaks Navajo, and an astronaut wears a loincloth. In Gerald L. Clarke’s Ten Piece Offering, a shaman gives thanks with a KFC bucket.

A work like Judith A. Lowry’s Road Kill Warrior: Last of His Tribe insists that visitors look beyond the humor to the complex emotions these works convey. Lowry has painted a Nike-clad powwow dancer taking feathers from a roadkill bird while his family wait in their camper bus and a timber truck drives by. The messages are obvious, the implications multilayered.

Native Views has been traveling the country since 2004 and recently returned from Artrain’s first tour of Alaska. The exhibition has encouraged new alliances among Native and non-Native groups that have hosted the train. These visits have also brought recognition to the work of local artists and encouraged complementary community activities. In recognition of such benefits, Artrain USA just received a 2006 National Award for Museum and Library Science, a federal honor for community service that has also gone to the likes of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in D.C. and the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.

This will be the last opportunity to see Native Views back on its home rails before it departs for a tour of the Southeast and Midwest. The exhibit will be dismantled in late 2007.

[Review published January 2007]