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The Autry Presents Coyote Leaves the Res: The Art of Harry Fonseca

Harry Fonseca, Wide Eyed and Bushy Tailed # 1 (detail), 1993. Acrylic on canvas. © 2016 Harry Fonseca Collection, Autry Museum; 2016.10.211

The Autry Museum of the American West announced its debut solo exhibition drawn from its acquisition of the estate of renowned artist Harry Fonseca (Nisenan Maidu, Hawaiian, Portuguese, 1946–2006). Coyote Leaves the Res: The Art of Harry Fonseca features 60 of Fonseca’s works, including paintings, sketches, and lithographs, and will be on view from May 19, 2019, to January 5, 2020, at the Autry in Griffith Park. The exhibition runs concurrently with Indian Country: The Art of David Bradley; together, these two major shows represent the Autry’s substantive exploration of contemporary art from Native America.

Fonseca is best-known for his depiction of Coyote, the colorful trickster who leaves the “res” (reservation) and re-appears in a variety of non-traditional settings. The Art of Harry Fonseca focuses on Coyote’s role as an avatar for the artist and a metaphor for exploring his creative, artistic, and ethnic identity within the context of the contemporary world.  As a gay man and a person of mixed heritage, Fonseca used his art as a vehicle for self-discovery—a means of navigating different aspects of his life and identity during a time when ideas about Native peoples were often driven by outside forces, including commercial markets, tourism, and historical clichés.

Acquired by the Autry in 2016, the collection from which the exhibition draws includes over 500 original works of art by Fonseca as well as his personal archive of journals, papers, and sketchbooks, most of which have never been exhibited, researched, or published. With his trademark blend of traditional imagery, contemporary experience, and vibrant color and form, Fonseca expanded the definition of American Indian art and shattered expectations and stereotypes that had long confined it.

“Fonseca’s great contribution was in bumping up against and crossing confines that were never previously engaged. His work spoke both internally, to Native Americans, as well as externally, with those outside the ‘res,’ and nimbly traversed artistic and cultural boundaries with ideas about Indianness,” said W. Richard West, Jr. (Southern Cheyenne), the Autry’s President and CEO. “It was Harry who got us past this unidimensional view of what Indianness is. Our museum’s mission to share the diverse stories of the American West guided us in our landmark acquisition of the Harry Fonseca estate, and now in presenting the story of his Coyote.” 

Born in Sacramento, California in 1946, Harry Fonseca was an artist from an early age. He was greatly influenced by his uncle, Henry Azbill, a Konkow Maidu elder and a cultural protector of Maidu culture. While a fine arts student at California State University, Sacramento, Fonseca recorded his uncle telling the Maidu creation story. During this period, he became increasingly involved with the Native community, including as a traditional dancer. These connections were strengthened through his lifelong friendship with fellow artist Frank LaPena (Wintu-Nomtipom/Tenai), and throughout his career he would draw from the rich visual culture of his Maidu heritage, including basket designs, traditional dances, and regalia.

In 1977, he painted Creation Story, which was based on the stories he heard from his uncle. Much of his subsequent work invoked petroglyphic symbols, as he sought new ways to connect to tradition. His oeuvre is deeply rooted in the experience of the Native world, including a series on the genocide of Native people in California that occurred with the rise of the mission system and the discovery of gold in California.

“Harry Fonseca’s work is disarmingly personal, which contributes to its power and impact,” said Amy Scott, the Autry’s Executive Vice President of Research and Interpretation, Marilyn B. and Calvin B. Gross Curator of Visual Arts, and curator of the exhibition. “With Coyote as his sly stand in, Fonseca offers observations and insights about his experience as a Native artist and a gay man who found joy in all things creative, in ways that continue to reach broad audiences.”

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