Like a lot of people, I found out about the Google Arts & Culture app when my Facebook friends used it to post selfies next to their doppelganger portraits from the world of fine art.
Some of them posted articles about how the app would steal your biometrics for the government, but I’ve gone to the Indian Health Service my whole life, and my husband is a soldier: The government probably has everything it needs from me. So with great interest, I took a selfie in my pajamas and discovered that my closest matches were a woman from Singaporean artist Georgette Chen’s “Family Portrait” and a woman from Peruvian artist Claudia Coca’s “Improving the Race.” I posted on Facebook and made my jokes … and then my Navajo friend used the app and found that he, too, looked like someone from Chen’s same painting. That’s when I noticed that none of my friends, Native or otherwise, were getting results from American Indian artwork. Did we not look “Indian” enough for Google, or was there no American Indian art with which to compare us?
Besides having the feature that allows you to match yourself to a fine art portrait, the Google Arts & Culture app includes collections from museums, user-made galleries, and artworks sorted by artist, medium, art movement, historic event, historical figure, and place. It also has the handy “Nearby” button, which shows art museums closest to you, along with directions and hours of operation. Stories “created by a third party” (no bylines) appear as well, categorized by sections like “Cultural Heritage,” which according to my admittedly short search seems to be where “non-Western” stories appear.
Any time you research Indigenous people of the United States, you have to try all the possible keywords, and that’s what I did. “American Indian” brought 4,861 “items” and 316 user galleries, mostly featuring drawings of Indigenous people by non-Indigenous artists and ancient pieces such as Adena and Hopewell pottery. “Native American” yielded 266 user galleries and1,271 “items,” most of them historical pieces except for OxDx Clothing’s “Native Americans discovered Columbus” T-shirt. “Indigenous” brought 1,237 items, but most of them were from outside the United States. “Contemporary American Indian art” brought 60 items, including work by Dick West (Cheyenne) and Stephen Mopope (Kiowa), along with some non-Indigenous artists. The user galleries were almost all about history. The first listed of 186 stories included “American Indians on Postage Stamps,” a story about the American bison, and some stories that had the word “Indian” (as in “from India”) in them.
I tried several specific artist names, like Fritz Scholder, who doesn’t have his own entry but who is represented by a story produced by the Bureau of Indian Affairs Museum Program, which is one of few American Indian-focused collections represented among the more than 1,000 museums and cultural institutions on the app. Much to my dismay, T.C. Cannon’s name yield “No results found.”
The algorithm of the app may tailor the home page to your interests, but I’m not sure. However, after all that searching, my home page suddenly showed a story called “5 Native American Artists You Should Know,” illustrated with a Joan Hill painting. Hill (Mvskoke) is one of them, along with Navajo singer Radmilla Cody, Cherokee designer and cofounder of the Institute of American Indian Arts Lloyd “Kiva” New (who does not have an entry on the app), Apsaalooke hip-hop artist Supaman (also no entry), and Osage ballerina Maria Tallchief (no entry, but 80 photographs of her on the app).
So, it seems that Google Arts & Culture, like the mainstream art world, may need to pay more attention to American Indian art, especially that which has been made in the current century. To be fair, however, the app relies on museums and institutions to join and its users to curate collections. That’s where you come in.
To curate your own collection, choose “Favorites” as you are looking at art on the app. Go to “About” on the Google Arts & Culture homepage dropdown menu (on a phone, you will then need to click “About the Google Cultural Institute“). From there, choose “For the Culturally Curious.” If you are on a laptop, you will see “Get Involved” in the top left. If you are on a phone, scroll down until you find “Create, Connect and Share. Join the Global Community.” Either option will take you to “Be Your Own Curator.”
There, you can create, name, and fill a collection (called a “user gallery”) which can be made available to everyone who uses the app. You do this by searching through available works and “favoriting” (click on the heart icon) ones you wish to include.
Right now, most of the Indigenous-themed user galleries seem to have been curated by or for students, and most focus on historical pieces. Perhaps yours will focus on newer Native art, focus on a specific nation or region, or you can create a broad theme that incorporates Indigenous artists. Currently, the official “pop art,” “abstract expressionism,” and “street art” collections don’t include American Indian artists, for example. A user gallery could show that American Indian artists have been part of those movements.
The only problem is that you are only allowed to use works that are already included in Google’s virtual museum, and as I’ve discussed, post-1930s American Indian art is not well-represented there. That is a large problem, but Google pays attention to its users’ online activity. If they see us looking for “American Indian art,” “Native American art,” “Indigenous art of the Americas,” “First Nations art,” or “Inuit art” perhaps they will begin to increase the amount of Indigenous art and artists available to people who download their app to learn about and enjoy art.
People downloading the app may not be collectors or museum curators, but art isn’t only for collectors and curators. The Google Arts & Culture app does an admirable job of making art accessible to everyone with an internet connection, and all those people need to know that Indigenous people of the Americas didn’t stop making art after they finished building their mounds and surviving the Great Depression. Furthermore, Indigenous people who download the app should be able to look up their favorite Indigenous artists and expect to find them in the world’s largest virtual museum. After all, we are part of the world.
Further reading: Google Arts and Culture #Selfie App Inherits Art World Disparities (KQED)