Sunday, March 20, 2011

Dances with Pez Dispensers

Dreamcatchers.  Wolves on t-shirts.  Broad-shouldered men and women with their arms outstretched to the moon or a mountain or an eagle.

American Indian art, right?

Powwow purchases perhaps.  Or examples of things you can buy at souvenir stands along I-40 through New Mexico and Arizona.  Decorations for a dorm room, maybe.

Fortunately, contemporary American Indian art is so much more exciting and challenging and funny than that. 

For instance, look at a work by Todd Bordeaux.  This display is called Reservation Diabetes Dispensers.

Reservation Diabetes Dispensers
Three dispensers of Pez (now Rez) candies that were distributed for different holidays -- Halloween (the closest to the camera), Easter (a bunny) and Christmas (Santa Claus).

It looks rather low-brow and comical -- and it is.  But it is postmodern and serious at the same time.  It is what we might call Pop Art or Neo-Pop Art. 

Both types of art can simultaneously celebrate and criticize consumerism and advertising.  In this case, despite the serious message that is conveyed by Reservation Diabetes Dispensers, the viewer is immediately drawn to the familiarity of the form.  Their fond memories of collecting the dispensers shape their initial reaction to the piece.  I bet nearly everyone smiles and laughs when they first see it.  The humor here is simultaneously innocent and dark.

Bordeaux's work also is an example of appropriation, where an object has been recycled or revised by an artist.  The everyday object is divorced from its original context.  This makes the viewer see it in a new light.  The work alienates the viewer from everyday objects they have taken for granted.  And it also raises questions about the nature of art.  Is it art simply because someone says it is?

Pop Art also comments on the ways art has been turned into a commodity.  This is done frequently by taking an actual commodity -- a Pez dispenser in this case -- and using it to make art.  Candy dispensers?  Art?  It is all for sale. 

But I see Bordeaux's display also commenting on the way American Indian arts and crafts have become commodities.  You can find this same beadwork on keychains and clothing and other items -- oftentimes at those I-40 souvenir stands.  His items indicate the way American Indian culture is often marketed to non-native audiences.

It also indicates the way non-native cultural practices are marketed to American Indians.  In this case, it is the way poverty and the lack of healthy food choices on many American Indian reservations have resulted in high rates of diabetes.  Nationally, more than 16 percent of the American Indian and Alaska Native population has diabetes, which is about twice the average for the entire United States population.  The rate can be as high as 33 percent among American Indians in the southwestern United States.

Bordeaux's choice of Pez dispensers also suggests the impact of colonization.  The Easter Bunny and Santa Claus evoke Christianity.  The arrival of Christianity to American Indians coincided with the arrival of other things, such as European diseases, devastating wars, coerced boarding school educations that worked to erase native languages, cultures, and religions.  The third dispenser, the one in the foreground, probably was not chosen because Halloween is so popular on American reservations; it probably was chosen because of its scary skull and its suggestion of death.

That is a lot to say with three candy dispensers!

I was introduced to this piece this past weekend 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.  Bordeaux'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.  I will write soon about some of the other artists she discussed.

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