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Exhibit mainstreams American Indian art

TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ American Indian artists and their backers have long lamented the genre's classification as craft or as artifacts of receding cultures.

An exhibit of pieces that take American Indian art toward the mainstream while still adhering to tradition hopes to change all that.

``This is one of the larger and first exhibits seeking to place Native American art in the broader context of American art,'' said Christine Kallenberger, curator of ``Changing Hands: Art Without Reservation.''

Placards describing the pieces in ``Changing Hands,'' which opens Sunday at The Philbrook Art Museum in Tulsa, won't even identify the artist's tribe.

``That's not part of this show,'' Kallenberger said. ``That's an approach toward Native American art and artists that we don't apply to others in American art. It underscores that this is a whole new attitude.''

The exhibit, on loan from the American Craft Museum in New York with artwork donated largely by individual collectors, is on display until March 16. It showed previously at Texas Tech University.

The artists create traditional American Indian artwork _ pottery, wood carvings, rugs and jewelry _ but they approach them with surprising imagery, unusual themes and an emphasis on form over function.

``They're so much more innovative than a lot of the works you sometimes see,'' said Kristin Bucher, editor of Southwest Art magazine. ``They're pushing the envelope...This really proves that Native American art belongs in the context of fine art and not just as craft or artifact.''

Curators and art historians are increasingly placing American Indian art alongside the standards of American fine arts, said Byron Price, director of the University of Oklahoma's Charles M. Russell Center for the Study of Art of the American West.

The trend is recent but has its roots in the study, beginning in the 1960s, of how race, gender and class have impacted American history, Price said.

``The fact that native work is hung in galleries with the traditional works of art that one might expect to find there is testimony to a change among views of curators and art historians and the quality of the work itself,'' Price said.

Take ``Double-Spouted Jar'' by Santa Fe, N.M.-based artist Jacquie Stevens. The soft blue and pink pot's uneven curves and its spouts too small for use contrast with past artist's emphasis on utility.

``It's evocative of a traditional wedding jar with its two valves, but its undulating, sensuous form and the color is different from the typical browns and reds,'' Kallenberger said.

Or ``Dinosaur Rug,'' by Florence Riggs, a Navajo from Tuba City, Ariz. The rug is colored with earth tones and coarsely woven, but it places pterodactyls, stegosauruses and tyrannosauruses on its desert landscape.

Politics from outside the reservation have also entered the artists' work, with a special emphasis on the September 11, 2001, attacks.

Martha Smith's ``United We Stand Skyline Rug,'' imposes Manhattan's skyline, with the World Trade Center towers intact, on top of the American flag. It's a message of unity in an art genre known more for expressing anger over the historical abuse of tribes.

Michael Dean Jenkins equipped his carved wood American Indian doll, called ``Zoot Suit Katsina,'' with a traditional mask but also with a tan, pinstriped zoot suit and black and white wingtips. The Flagstaff-based artist said on the piece's placard that it was inspired by old Hollywood movies, specifically the Joker character in ``Batman.''

``This piece typifies how Native American artists live in two cultures that are often warring but can also enrich each other,'' said Kallenberger, who's also the Philbrook's director of exhibitions and public programs.

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