Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Pop Go the Indians

Holy Trinity by Derek No-Sun Brown
I recently attended the annual American Indian Arts Marketplace at the Autry National Center.  For this event, a giant tent is erected and filled with dozens of American Indian artists. They display works that include jewelry, baskets, clothing, painting, and sculpture.

It is always a great event, and I saw one trend that I especially enjoyed: an increase in popular culture imagery in the work by American Indian artists. You know, Star Wars vehicles running alongside horses.  Sitting Bull in a Versace scarf.  Pixelated portraits of Navajo people.

Three years ago, when I attended my first Arts Marketplace, I saw just one booth that featured this blend of "traditional" arts with popular culture.  This year I saw four.  I know that is not a lot, but it is sign of a trend that is evident elsewhere.
War Songs Circa 1986 by Derek No-Sun Brown

For instance, Derek No-Sun Brown was at the Autry show for the first time.  In fact, it was the first show ever for the recent graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe.  I really liked his big canvasses that featured American Indian men in war bonnets and on horseback, in the midst of the Great Plains -- with one man holding a large, silver boombox on his shoulder. [Update: I added the Holy Trinity image after the original posting.]

Derek also had the large portrait of Sitting Bull that I mentioned.  In it he wears a Versace scarf and has gold chains hanging below that.  Chief Blinging Bull?

The image I have included here is from Derek's website.  It is titled "War Songs Circa 1986." He had it with him at the Autry.  (Out of respect for the artists, I did not take pictures of their work in the booths.)

Dallin Maybee was at the Autry too.  His work featured Star Wars imagery, as well as vintage automobiles, and cartoon characters.  One of his paintings blended a popular genre in American Indian art -- ledger art -- with some updating.  Contemporary ledger art revives the style of drawings made by American Indians in the 1800s on ledgers (old accounting books).  Those images continued a Plains tradition of drawing and painting on animal hides.  Artists today take the same kind of paper and create images that build upon that rich tradition.

Image provided by Dallin Maybee.
Maybee's booth featured ledger art that included the usual male warriors riding dashing ponies, but among the horses were cars and motorcycles. And in one work, the procession was being led by an AT-AT, those four-legged assault vehicles used by the Imperial forces against the Rebels in The Empire Strikes Back. Oh, and Spongebob is in the procession too.  Riding a sea horse, of course.

Dallin Maybee playing his Spongebob drum.
Speaking of Spongebob, Dallin also had a hand drum he had made in the shape of that aquatic hero. The arms detach to become the sticks for beating.  (You can see a YouTube video of him playing it.)

Jeremy Singer was the first artist at the Autry show I saw mixing popular culture imagery with his paintings of more widely expected American Indian themes.  (I bought one of his paintings that year; it is a geometric study that blends shapes commonly found in native weaving with the graphics of the old Atari Asteroids game.) This year his work concentrated on portraits made in triplicate, mimicking the way 3D images appear when not viewed through 3D glasses.

I have included the poster of a recent show of Singer's to illustrate the appearance of his portraits.  You can see examples his work at his website.

These artists all stated that the popular culture images and themes were extensions of their lives. The artists had grown up with these images, or their children loved these characters, and they had been important influences. Brown, Maybee, and Singer are part of a growing trend in contemporary American Indian art that combines visual vocabularies from two fields generally thought of as distinct from each other (at least in the art marketplace and mainstream art criticism).  They combine the signs and symbols from American Indian representational traditions that predate contact with Europeans with signs and symbols that came after that contact.  These contemporary signs and symbols almost always originate in the last few decades, when these artists were children or were raising their children.

An entire exhibition of such works was created in Santa Fe in 2012 -- Low-Rez: The Native American Lowbrow.  (FYI: "rez" is slang for reservation.)  You can see an excellent blog entry about this show here.  Jeremy Singer was an artist featured in it.

The Heart of the Indian by America Meredith
One of my favorite images from the Low-Rez show is by America Meredith.  The Heart of the Indian features a drawing from the 1580s, a PowerPuff Girl (I believe this is Buttercup), and, according to Meredith, a Cherokee pottery stamp design.

The words on the painting are from James Mooney, a white anthropologist famous for writing about his experiences in American Indian communities in the late 1800s; this line is from Historical Sketch of the Cherokee.  It reads: "There is change indeed in dress and outward seeming, but the heart of the Indian is still his own."

On the one hand, one could say the drawing from the 1580s represents the appearance of the American Indian at the time of first contact and Buttercup represents the way a 21st century American Indian might imagine herself as an empowered female.  The Cherokee stamp between the two figures could suggest the native bond that links the two figures, and the Mooney quote could emphasize the similarities between the two images rather than their differences.

On the other hand, one could see the 1580 image (by John White) as among the first images that started a long history of misperception of American Indians by Europeans and misrepresentations of them.  The image is called "The Conjurer," but here the figure looks to be fleeing rather than conjuring -- perhaps he is running away from Buttercup.  (She does look angry, doesn't she?)  This reading would suggest that Buttercup, despite not being readily recognizable as "Indian," has been chosen by an Indian artist for her self-representation, and it is chasing away the image that does deploy the more easily understood signs of "Indian" but which is a representation created by someone else. In this sense the native artist is claiming her own agency.

Regardless of which reading one chooses, the Mooney quote suggests that the image speaks from an American Indian experience no matter the surface appearance of its imagery.  Simon Ortiz, a distinguished poet from the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, had something to say about such things.  In his essay, "Towards a National Indian Literature: Cultural Authenticity in Nationalism," Ortiz writes that some people feel that speaking and writing in English, that participating in cultural practices that originated outside of their native communities, are somehow less Indian.  He denies this. American Indian artists have not been forced to "forsake their native selves." Ortiz claims "it is entirely possible for a people retain and maintain their lives through the use of any language." I would add: Whether that language is verbal or visual.

No Locks by April Holder
An artist from the Low-Rez show, April Holder, said it well: "If Native Americans live in two worlds, then Native Pop is the bridge between those two worlds. Native pop art is the combination of the essence of traditional identity and the embrace of the ever changing world around us."


  1. I think Aboriginal artists have been incorporating "pop culture" elements from contact - just that it wasn't as celebrated (especially as Western connoisseurs wanted what they thought was "authentic"). And often the work was made for personal expression or for a local market. I'm thinking of the beaded bottles and tea cosies or a carving by a Haida artist of the sphinx from the 1890s (no name was recorded of the artist), which I saw at the British Museum when I was there doing some work, including filming two Haida curators/knowledge holders as they had discussions with the Museum and did some research. And I have a poster by Michael Horse from the American Indian Film Festival from the 1990s that incorporates ledger drawings with film cameras, lights and director's chairs. I think we have to be careful when we celebrate this latest "pop" culture mash-ups to not forget that artists have been referencing Western pop culture, techniques and tropes for a long time. Has everyone forgotten TC Cannon so soon?

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences. I haven't forgotten Cannon. I love his stuff. And I imagine all of the artists I discuss in the entry do too. In a blog entry of less than 1,000 words there is only so much ground that can be covered. I did not discuss the marketing element that you mention, though if I had chosen a different angle I easily could have. My thoughts originated from just this particular art marketplace, a pattern I noticed there, and how that pattern can be connected to larger movements in the American Indian art world. I could have discussed the possible growing sales of this kind of art and its possibly growing popularity among the purchasers of native art, who tend, as you note, to prefer the art that more readily employs the common signifiers of "Indian."

  3. Context is everything though - though TC Cannon is more than context. There seems to be a tendency to dehistoricize Aboriginal artistic expression (except traditional - which is all about its relationship to history re: collectors). This "new" art is given value because the narrative suggests we are finally getting "modern" - when we've always been "modern". I'm just saying.

  4. I appreciate your point, and you make part of my point for me. Places like the Autry's American Indian Arts Marketplace feature lots of great work, and I love going -- and yet most of the work that sells in that situation expresses a limited range of signification and iconography. Horses. Bison. Leather hides. Southwest landscapes. Stoic faces. Geometric designs on baskets and blankets. Flutes. You get the idea. So Spongebob riding a seahorse in ledger art stands out. A mounted warrior with a boombox stands out. A Navajo elder in "3D" stands out. I have not been to the Santa Fe Indian Market. Perhaps these things are common there. I hope to attend the next one and find out... So the modern element is not new. Native artists have always represented their current lives, and you and I agree there completely. That does not mean we should not note the difference in what is new. Hip-hop imagery, for instance. Star Wars. The Cartoon Network. One thing that is different, I believe, is the "low brow" angle of some recent works, and the Pop Art nature of it. One element of Pop Art is its de-emphasis on originality; it reproduced mass media images without the anxiety about copying. For the mainstream Pop Artists, this sometimes involved literally cutting images out of magazines and pasting them onto the canvas. So when we get The Conjurer, Buttercup, and the Cat in the Hat looking like they have been cut out from books, I think we are moving into a new region of American Indian art, a source of signication that challenges mainstream assumptions about what defines the category "American Indian art." And even if it is not new, it is still cool and fun and great to look at and great to talk about.