Photo by Ted West
Tyler alumnus Edgar Heap of Birds (MFA '79), one of the most prominent Native American artists in contemporary art today, has donated $200,000 to the Tyler School of Art and Architecture to name an exhibition space within its public gallery and create an artist’s residency program focused on Native Americans in North America. The gift will be formally celebrated on February 9, 2023, with remarks, performances, and jewelry making workshops.
The exhibition space will occupy a 750-square-foot portion of Temple Contemporary, Tyler’s center for exhibitions and public programming, and will be named the Edgar Heap of Birds Family Gallery. Additionally, the gift will create an endowed fund to support Native American art programming at Tyler, including artist residencies and annual exhibitions by artists whose works primarily focus on the history and lived experiences of federally recognized tribal citizens in North America and bring attention to the lives, struggles and triumphs of Native Americans.
“The Edgar Heap of Birds Family Gallery will speak to generations of students—Native and non-Native—about the need for visibility and understanding, and the importance of generosity. We are profoundly grateful to Edgar for his generosity and the legacy his gift will leave,” said Tyler Dean Susan E. Cahan.
The donation is Heap of Birds’ first to Tyler, although he has been involved with the school in various ways since 2018. In fall 2018, he was named Tyler’s honoree in Temple University’s Gallery of Success honoring alumni achievement. In the 2018-2019 academic year, he produced a limited edition of 400 prints in collaboration with Tyler printmaking students as a gift for the graduating Class of 2019. His project began a tradition of commissioning a Tyler alum to coproduce an artwork in multiple each year to give to graduates as a Commencement gift.
“When you are a Native American, you are always looking for ways to be recognized,” Heap of Birds said about the motivation behind his gift and the naming of the gallery space. “When you don’t see names like yours, you might believe there is nothing for you in a place.”
Heap of Birds said he hopes the gallery naming and residency program will first and foremost give Native Americans a sense of pride, and create a “presence” and awareness of Indigenous people among the general public, particularly Tyler and Temple students, faculty and staff.
“There is an absence of Native presence across the country, and just having [my family] name out there along with other nomenclature” makes a statement, Heap of Birds said.
In particular, he envisions the residency program as an avenue to bring greater visibility to Native American artists and artwork, and the heritage and histories they represent. While similar programs have been developed around the country, they are often short-lived, he said, adding that he welcomes others to support the program to ensure its sustainability.
For three decades, Heap of Birds’ multidisciplinary practice has invoked the turbulent, often violent, experiences of Indigenous Americans, particularly land rights and ownership. Among his most notable works are monumental wall installations, assemblages of large primary and ghost prints, which are created without re-inking the print plate. Brief text, such as “Do Not Dance for Pay” raise questions of empowerment, identity, and history.
With the prints hung to mirror each other, Heap of Birds has said the primary prints represent the truth of Native people today,” bright, vibrant, strong, clear,” while the ghost prints reflect how he believe his Cheyenne-Arapaho Nation and other Indigenous tribal communities are seen by others, as a fleeting presence like apparitions.
Temple Contemporary Director Jova Lynne expressed great anticipation about the opportunities that the gift and artist’s residency present. “I look forward to working closely with Edgar Heap of Birds and the staff at Tyler as we embark on advancing our commitment to uplifting the voices of Native American artists. This timely initiative will foster meaningful relationships and engagement for local and national practitioners who demonstrate the best of contemporary art practices.”