Source: Visualizing Native Art

When considering what data I wanted to visualize, my first thought was to return to the “Mapping Native Art” data that I had previously worked with. In my post I discussed how dissatisfied I felt with the result of that project, but I still felt there was something important there – so I turned to visualization. I used the Google Fusion table function, which is admittedly much less elegant and sophisticated than what the Gephi tool offers, but the data was already in a fusion table so it made it relatively simple to re-configure it. I went through each of the websites I had listed. Remember that this website was listing sites that sold “Genuine Native Art” and seemed directly aimed at the tourist market- exactly the dimension of the market I am interested in. As I visited each site I took a quick glance at the most prominent image on the front page – the first thing to catch my eye – and recorded what type of “art” it was. I was surprised to find that jewelry was by far the most popular, followed by painting, although I suppose I should not have been. I was then interested in what types of art were sold where, so I connected the physical locations of the stores with the type of art. Jewelry was sold everywhere, but there were trends like sculpture/carving being more prevalent in the Northwest and silver jewelry being most prominent in the Southwest. And of course outliers, such as places selling Zuni “fetishes” (and stuffed animals??) I want to gain a better understanding of this market – who is buying, who is selling, how it intersects with the “fine art” market, how it impacts tribes both economically and culturally. I do feel that visualization will be important tool in this endeavor – the very nature of a market is that it is about movement and fluidity, an element hard to grasp in text. I want the ability to “zoom out” with my focus, to view the market through “a macroscope” as Graham and Milligan put it.
In the same essay, these authors note that “any visualization we create is imbued with the narrative and purpose we give it, whether or not we realize we have done so.” I think for myself as a scholar who has not spent much time working with quantitative data, I am always aware of the constructs I am working within when I write, but when I work with data it is easier to slip into the false notion that these numbers, these figures, are objective. With this project, I was perhaps not aware that the subjectivity of questions I am asking are generating equally subjective data. I think this is an insight I will need to continually remind myself of. That is not to say that I am not excited about the power of visualization, the possibilities these tools offer. Native art, Native craft, and Native identity are enormously complex topics, and to my knowledge there have not been any large-scale analysis of the Native Art market. For example, in 1990 the Indian Arts and Crafts Act was passed, requiring that any artists labeling their work as “Indian” have to be able to prove their enrollment in a recognized tribe. What impact did that have on the market? What about the fact that someone who is 1/168th Choctaw can market their art as “Indian” while someone who is 1/4th Chippewa Cree cannot, due to the complexities of blood quantum laws?
For now this is only the most rudimentary of visualizations, but I am looking forward to continuing the project. I will need to find more sources of data, approach the information from both close reading and big picture perspectives, and deal with the learning curve of Gephi – with the likely result still being rudimentary and preliminary. However, as I have stated earlier, I feel there is valuable information here, a narrative worth exploring and presenting.