A New Path Forward

The Gorman Museum at UC Davis marks its golden anniversary with a beautiful, much bigger new home to showcase its vast collection of contemporary native american art. Welcome in.
Gorman Opening Spread
Illustration by Noah Lee

A wavy white metal scrim of a sculpture shades the entrance to the Gorman Museum of Native American Art’s new home. Perched on tall white steel posts, the graceful form undulates and curves overhead like a ribbon, gift wrapping the low, pagoda-like mid-century building and dappling the ground below with triangular shadows that echo archetypal patterns found throughout indigenous cultures, from Oceania to the Arctic.

“The triangle is very important,” says the work’s creator, artist Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie (pronounced Sin-na-jinny), who is also the museum’s director. “You can find the triangle pattern in California basketry, in designs in Hawaii, in the feathered cloaks in New Zealand, so it speaks internationally. Everybody will take away what they want from it.”

Tsinhnahjinnie, 69, is calling from the road in June—she’s just been to the Museum of Modern Art in New York to finalize the sale of three of her own works. The museum had previously been gifted a print of Vanna Brown, Azteca Style, a collage depicting a Native Vanna White decked out in ceremonial regalia, gazing out from inside an old-fashioned black-and-white TV, as part of a larger bequest.

“They wanted to see more works in that series, and so they acquired three more,” she says.

Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie

Gorman Museum director Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie, whose photography resides in the collections of the Smithsonian and New York’s MoMA, teaches a full course load in the UC Davis Native American Studies department, including a class titled Visual Sovereignty.

Tsinhnahjinnie—who identifies as “two-spirit,” a Native American term for one who embodies both male and female spirits—is also a full-time faculty member in the Native American Studies department. (UC Davis is one of only four schools in the country to offer a Ph.D. program in that subject. The others are the University of Arizona, the University of Alaska and the University of New Mexico.) She became museum director in 2004 and began what she calls the process of “manifesting” the reborn museum. “We came from a really small, humble space,” she says. “I like to say it’s the little museum that did.”

Her partner in manifestation is executive director Veronica Passalacqua, 55, who also arrived in 2004, via stints at Christie’s auction house and the Barbican Centre, a performing arts center in London. Together they quietly grew the Gorman Museum’s collection from 286 works to more than 2,000 today, mostly through donations and gifts from artists. Along the way, they attracted a handful of grants as well as university investment for the expansion. The painter Annie Ross—an indigenous studies professor at Simon Fraser University in Canada and a Maya Tribe member—was a Ph.D. student in Native American studies at UC Davis in the early 2000s, and remembers it as a time of great synergy, when departments at the school were feeding off of one another for growth and inspiration.

“There were stellar people at UC Davis when I was there,” says Ross. “I had a studio in the art department. Gary Snyder was teaching poetry. I also had some interface with the Applied Sciences department because I was writing about the nuclear industry on indigenous homelands for my dissertation. And then Veronica came in to run the Gorman and it took off under her leadership. It blossomed and fluoresced.”

Passalacqua, an energetic Italian American in shimmery silver jewelry, meets me on a spring morning to tour the new space, where lights have still to be hung.

Veronica Passalacqua

Executive director Veronica Passalacqua at the Gorman Museum on July 21 in front of a restored six-panel 1975 mural by the Artist Hopid collective depicting the Hopi ceremonial calendar

The fact that cultural lore imbues the museum’s elegant entrance sculpture is only fitting for this institution—one that has deftly combined a knack for innovation with a passion for preservation since its founding in 1973. Beneath it, the museum’s entrance—on a corner facing the UC Davis Arboretum’s native plants section—is transparent. Layers of glass frame a space that will eventually become its gift shop, leading into the galleries, which surround a soaring atrium.

For years, the museum’s gallery occupied 1,200 square feet inside the Native American Studies department building deep within the campus. Great for students, but hard for the general public to access. Now it’s taken over the 4,000-square-foot space in the former faculty club building, which has become a part of a growing strip of public-facing cultural amenities along the southern edge of campus, recently designated as the Gateway District, which includes the Arboretum, the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, and the Manetti Shrem Museum.

READ MORE: The Art of Architecture: Our Behind the Scenes Look at the Design and Opening of the Manetti Shrem Museum

This September, the museum will celebrate both its grand opening in a freshly renovated building and its 50th anniversary, with a show of Contemporary California Native Art as well as selections from the permanent collection.

But the real beginning of the Gorman Museum is a few years older than that, albeit unofficially, as Passalacqua tells the story. “Carl [Gorman] was only here for a few years, but he started amassing stuff so that he could teach his studio art classes, but he was also starting to teach a little bit of art history by using objects and bringing things in,” she says. “He started filling up two Quonset huts with things that inspired him.” Campus lore holds that students pinned a sign above the door that read “Gorman Museum.” When Gorman retired in 1973, the University made it official, establishing an art institution in honor of this charismatic founding faculty member whose lasting impact on the campus belies his relatively brief tenure.

The museum’s namesake himself has an origin story you might want to make a batch of popcorn for. Having grown up on the Navajo reservation in Chinle, Arizona, Carl Nelson (C.N.) Gorman was recruited by the Marine Corps in April 1942 to become one of 29 original “code talkers.” The close-knit group of native Navajo speakers crafted an impossible-to-break code that was deployed during World War II, and today they are widely credited with helping win the battle of Iwo Jima.

Although socially marginalized, Navajo soldiers didn’t experience the same kind of overt racism Black troops did, according to Gorman’s youngest daughter, Zonnie Gorman, 60, who told me the story, calling from New Mexico where she’s finishing up her dissertation on the history of the code talkers. “It’s what I call an ignorant prejudice,” she says. “Indian men were stereotyped; they tended to be hyper-masculinized. This has a long history in the military where they were seen as almost superhuman that they could see in the dark; shoot 5,000 yards and hit bull’s-eyes. They were just given these superhuman qualities. They were never referred to by their names; they were just called ‘Chief.’ ”

Gorman’s wartime experiences inspired his resolve to become an artist and work to change that perception. He used the G.I. Bill to get an advanced degree in art and commercial art at what is now the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. In the 1950s, he worked for Douglas Aircraft as a technical illustrator, and began painting. “He studied European artists and styles of painting,” Zonnie says. “But then he took that and made it something uniquely his own, using Navajo and Native topics and his culture.” He dabbled in mosaics, ceramics and jewelry design, and in the 1960s, he moved back to the Navajo reservation, becoming the director of the Navajo Cultural Center in 1966. “He was an artist at heart but kept getting drawn into other things,” Zonnie adds. 

C.N. Gorman

The museum’s namesake Carl Nelson Gorman, a former World War II Navajo code talker, helped found the Native American Studies program at UC Davis.

The same stereotyping he encountered in the military followed him into the arts. “The fact that he kept getting boxed into this idea of what an Indian should paint was very much something that he experienced and pushed back against,” says Zonnie. 

By the time he was tapped to join the faculty at Davis (Zonnie would be a grade-schooler throughout that tenure), her father had developed the sensibility that would inform the eventual museum’s mission of challenging cultural stereotyping. “He wanted his students to be free to be who they were, and being Native American was definitely foremost. But it wasn’t about being an ‘Indian artist,’ ” Zonnie explains. “It was more about being an artist and having the freedom to celebrate all of those cultural aspects. That was my father’s philosophy, and it was fundamental to the founding of the museum.”

When Gorman joined the UC Davis faculty in 1969, he was one of four to co-found the Native American Studies Program, organized under the College of Agriculture and Environment, making it the first such program in California. His adult son, R.C. (Rudolph Carl) Gorman, a renowned artist in his own right, had just the year before borrowed money from his parents to open the first Native-owned art gallery, so the Gorman name was already prominent in the arts. In fact, Zonnie remembers her father stopping at roadside antique shops to gather “museum” items on road trips to visit her older brother in Taos. The Gormans were the original manifesters.

Gorman Divider

As Passalacqua continues the tour through the new museum space, there are tantalizing hints at what the inaugural show—scheduled to open with two days of events on Sept. 22 and 23—will feature, including works on a grand scale. Leaning against one wall, and still partially wrapped in plastic, is a big, vibrantly hued classical painting by Judith Lowry—a Nevada City artist and member of the Maidu and Pit River tribes whose work also hangs in the Smithsonian. With all the regal pomp and circumstance of a portrait by Kehinde Wiley (the Black artist best known for painting the official presidential portrait of Barack Obama), this painting depicts a Native American man seated on a throne gazing out past a supplicating white woman who kneels at his feet, presenting him with the Stars and Stripes.

Medicine Man by Judith Lowry

Nevada City artist Judith Lowry was exposed to Renaissance painters Giotto, Botticelli and Fra Angelico at age 6, when her military family was stationed in Europe. Those early influences can be seen here in her Medicine Man painting.

The inaugural show will also highlight a handful of late California artists—ones who Tsinhnahjinnie thinks deserve a wider audience. “Frank LaPena, Harry Fonseca, Brian Tripp,” she says. “They were very dear to the communities that surround them. So, the general public may not have an idea of why some of these artists are treasured.” After this show, they will.

For example, the Sacramento-born Maidu artist Harry Fonseca’s prints depict Coyote the trickster in drag (as seen below) or as a biker dude, in a joyfully primitive style. Sacramento State professor and longtime director of the Native American Studies department Frank LaPena—who the Autry Museum of the American West, located in Los Angeles’s Griffith Park, said “defined a generation of Native artists”—depicts ceremonial deer dancers as painterly, dreamscape-inhabiting mythical beings. And former Humboldt State University professor Brian Tripp’s work includes precise, jazzy drawings that are a riff on basketwork motifs.

As we continue the tour, I see three display cases that are already full of baskets and pottery—some from Gorman’s original collection, some more recently acquired. They are there to provide historical and cultural context to the contemporary artwork. “I wanted to have dense, visible storage,” Passalacqua says, so that students, artists and museumgoers could see the lineage of creative ideas, from the traditional to the avant-garde.

The open, browsable racks of paintings and objects contain a trove from the permanent collection, some which will be on view during the opening exhibition and some that won’t. An imposing, pastel-hued pot by R.C. Gorman—its modern shapes and colors echoing the other historical specimens. A vibrant, semi-abstract herd of horses engulfed in a cloud of dust by C.N. Gorman, reminiscent of rock art and cave paintings. Colorful abstractions by George Longfish, the museum’s longtime original director, and prints from the 1970s by Inuit artist Kenojuak Ashevak so graphical and groovy they look like they could have hung at the original Nut Tree in Vacaville. 

Harry Fonseca's Coyote Woman at Gorman Museum

Coyote Woman by Harry Fonseca (Courtesy of the Gorman Museum of Native American Art)

Passalacqua says the word has gone out to artists about the Gorman’s grander scale, and they’re all vying to program its soaring atrium. Napa artist Lewis deSoto has pitched a giant blow-up figure sculpture akin to a recent self portrait of himself as a “Skookum doll”—a fake Native-themed souvenir doll popular in the early 20th century. “He wants to do this giant, 12-foot-tall blow-up,” Passalacqua says, laughing and throwing up her hands in an “I give up” gesture. 

Delaware Nation sculptor and photographer Holly Wilson told me on a phone call from her studio in Oklahoma that her 2018 solo show at the Gorman was nothing short of career-making. The cover of the catalog from her show is an image of a wall-sized grid of tiny figures titled Under Our Skin, each a bust of a woman’s head and shoulders, and sculpted from different colored crayons. It’s an essay on difference and sameness, with a child’s innocent perspective evoked by the materials and color palette.

“I fall into a void because I don’t fit into the old guard mindset of what is Native. I think there’s still the old guard who want what you would think is traditional art even though that’s not really true because Native art always evolved,” Wilson says. “A Native art group would go, ‘Oh, your work looks way more contemporary, a contemporary curator should deal with you.’ And someone contemporary would go, No, you belong in the Native or indigenous camp.’ That has been my biggest struggle. But the Gorman doesn’t do that.”

The exhibit catalog has served her as a calling card and gotten her more opportunities than she would have landed without it. “The show that I created for them has become one that I’ve shown in New Mexico, California and Florida. It also went to Pennsylvania,” she says. “It’s traveled all over the place.” More solo shows mean more exposure, and more private sales.

Tsinhnahjinnie also points out that viewers benefit too, when artists show their work in person. “When you see a piece by Holly Wilson in 3D, in front of you, it moves you,” she says.

But the group shows are where the Gorman’s mission comes into its own. One that opened in late 2019 was called Indigenous Futurisms, a play on Afrofuturism coined by Grace Dillion, editor of Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction. “This show was basically sci-fi, comic books and gaming,” Passalacqua says. Visitors could play Native-designed video or board games, like Honwedom, the Maidu Game of Life, which teaches players about life in the precontact Sierras, or lounge in the gallery reading comic books like Super Indian (“Once a rez boy! Now a hero!”) by Arigon Starr of the Kickapoo Tribe. “And I had Star Wars playing on the TV in Navajo—because it was issued in Navajo—so that was the sound in the gallery,” Passalacqua says, adding that the show’s first fans were the Star Wars super fans the university sent over from the computer lab to program everything. “They wanted to hear it in Navajo because they knew every word in English,” she says.

“The sci-fi element I brought to the table with the visual art,” says Passalacqua. “I like to surprise people. Those kind of shows expose new people to the idea that Native American art isn’t just rugs and baskets.”

Works from that show now reside in the permanent collection, like K’ómoks Tribe member Andy Everson’s Resistance, a stunning portrait of a stormtrooper-like masked figure adorned in Pacific Northwest totemic designs that’s both imposing and whimsical, serious and fun. Or Chemehuevi Tribe member Cara Romero’s Arla Lucia, a photographic portrait melding Wonder Woman regalia with Native American ceremonial dress to create a cross-cultural super heroine—a work that will hang in the grand opening show.

If one believes even a little in the concept of spirit, then it’s easy to imagine Carl Gorman’s inhabiting and inspiring this cohort of artists who have finally taken that very same set of “super Indian” stereotypes that first inspired him to take up a paintbrush, and worked them into something poetic, meaningful and potent. It’s quite a legacy—from code talker to barrier breaker.

Annie Ross, that Davis alum so shaped by her experiences, both as a student and later an exhibitor, sums up the Gorman Museum’s meaning and mission best. “They just open arms to all the diverse artists, philosophies, methods, materials and new ways of expressing contemporary and ancient indigenous ideas for a larger audience. It’s on the soul level, the journey level,” she says, a smile in her voice. “It’s an impossible dream.”