|Spirit Warrior on Horse|
But this is my blog, so I should write at least a few things. His images interest me in their own right, but they interest me also because they probably go against what many people assume American Indian art to be. If I told most people that I was going to show them a painting called Spirit Warrior on Horse, I do not think they would expect a work of Indigenous Cubism.
The images of American Indians that most people in the United States are familiar with derive from three sources: the photography of Edward Curtis, the paintings and drawings of George Catlin, and Hollywood movies.
Some native artists have followed Curtis's lead, while others have challenged his notions of the stone-faced Indian, trapped in the past. For instance, look at this portrait by Curtis of a man named Bull Tongue.
Contrast this with a portrait by Big Bear. [In an earlier version I incorrectly described the painting as a self-portrait.]
Despite some superficial resemblance to Curtis's portraits, Big Bear's painting is dominated by his Cubist tendencies. Whereas Curtis's images can be considered elegiac, Big Bear's are energetic. Every inch of canvas is filled with vivid colors, dynamic patterns, and images of birds, animals, and landscape. The face may be stoic, but the canvas, if it reflects the interior of the American Indian artist's mind, is alive with pleasure, anxiety, movement, and meaning.
Images such as Big Bear's refuse to be trapped in that nostalgia. They are alive in the present. An image such as Spirit Warrior on Horse remembers a past before conquest, but it is not trapped in that past. It embraces the styles of Cubism, introduced long after the Indian Wars had ended. American Indian artists continue to evolve and explore new expressions, just as they always have. Big Bear's work is a testimony to that.
And his work just looks so darned cool.
I was introduced to Big Bear's work recently at the Native American Literature Symposium in Albuquerque, N.M. It is an annual gathering of people who study, teach, and/or create fiction, non-fiction, poetry, film, and art from Indian Country. Big Bear's work was part of a presentation by Heid Erdrich, a terrific poet who has turned her talents to curating the work of American Indian artists. You can see more artwork at the All My Relations Arts website. [A nice video about Big Bear can be seen here.]