Overshadowed and undervalued by the history of Caucasian colonizers, the diverse tapestry of America’s indigenous peoples is frequently molded together to form a digestible monolithic narrative. An increasingly urgent call to arms regarding minority representation in art accompanied the civil rights movements of the 1960s and, while significant efforts have been made since then, the push for intelligent dialogue and aesthetic recognition continues.
Accustomed to artifacts of times past, viewers seldom encounter contemporary Native American art. The Mary Elizabeth Dee Shaw Gallery’s exhibition We Are the People, aims to provoke thoughtful dialogue and insight through the work of eight vastly different indigenous artists. Selected by guest curator Wendy Red Star these artists use mediums like photography, performance, video and installation to compel both visual and conceptual veneration.
“I think indigenous artists are often left out of the equation, so this [show] is a great way for them to contribute to the contemporary artistic discourse,” says Shaw gallery director Lydia Gravis.
Indeed, the show uses a visual language to decipher the complexities of indigenous heritage and the nuances such cultures impose on individual and collective identity. In doing so, an array of visual curiosities awaits visitors upon entering the exhibition.
Immediately, a series of photographs attractively beckons one’s attention. John Feodorov’s images, informally tacked, poster-style, on the surrounding wall, have the faded quality of old family snapshots. Whether styled or candid, each image is a portrait of some kind. White shapes eclipse the faces of individual figures, rendering them anonymous. Phrases such as “Imagine this mystical vision of Indian style culture in your living room or den,” are set across each image. This combination serves as a satirical juxtaposition of the banal and the commercial, bringing to our attention the continuance of white colonialism in the form of capitalistic paternalism.
Viewers will quickly detect the source of the hypnotic dance music radiating from within the gallery. A video of Elisa Harkins’ performance, which took place on the opening night of the exhibition, shows her as she dances and sings on a stage located prominently in the gallery. In a truly imaginative combination, Harkins assimilates 19th-century Cherokee flute music and a traditional Fancy Shawl Dance with modern disco music. Her performance investigates Native American rituals and spiritualism “through the lens of someone raised on pop culture and computer games,” according to a press release.
Located in the west corner of the gallery, Amelia Winger-Bearskin’s video work “Say Indian” assembles clips of Western film actors uttering the word “Indians.” Limited almost exclusively to white men, including the American film legend John Wayne, the classification takes on a slightly different inflection with each utterance and reminds viewers of pop culture’s repetitive, non-dimensional stereotypes of the ”native.”
While each of these eight artists is diverse in tribal affiliation, gender and life experience, in unison their works relish in the emotive and visual power of material. Consistent with much of contemporary artistic practice, their works envision texture and process as conduits to emotive and spiritual insight.
After last year’s solo salt 11 series exhibition at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, artist Duane Linklater contributes four large sculptures to this group show. The works collectively dominate the gallery’s largest wall and are composed of fabric, plastic and textual accessories. Through their tactile presence and visual similarity to dry cleaning items, in his artist statement Linklater asks, “Are the folds and undulations of the plastics and the other soft materials in the works small spaces of sovereignty?” Here, Linklater appears to bridge a cultural gap between the First Nations interest in material resourcefulness and the West’s high modern penchant for non-traditional materials.
Tanya Lukin Linklater’s eerily compelling “Untitled” video work plays silently in the adjacent gallery. The video depicts two figures arranged in contortionist-like poses, interacting with each other while simultaneously making eye contact with viewers. In an examination of performance, the video re-creates scenes from three separate films in order to explore how meaning is altered through visual iteration. According to the artist’s statement, the “video is part of a larger project that investigates childhood through text, video and live performance.”
Like many works in the exhibition, Peter Morin’s “Because Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair,” is both startling and compelling. The installation depicts intricately sewn materials (moosehide, beads and human hair), which cover found commercial items such as bottle caps and vintage tobacco cans. These uncanny sculptures showcase an eerie cultural hybridity and allude to modernity in decidedly corporeal terms.
“I think there’s a lot of preconceived notions of what art made by Native Americans looks like and this exhibition shatters those ideas” Gravis says.
During the past year, minority artists were featured in several important exhibitions throughout the state. The trend is encouraging. As changing demographics attest to the increasingly urgent need for inclusion, art continues to work as an optimal vehicle for social engagement and criticism.
“We Are the People,” work by eight indigenous artists curated by Wendy Red Star, through April 8, at Shaw Gallery, Weber State University, Ogden.
Scotti Hill is a lawyer, art critic, and curator based in Salt Lake City. She has contributed to various publications and serves as an adjunct professor of art history at Westminster College. She has a Master’s Degree in art history from the University of Utah.