Headdresses have become synonymous with Native culture, but the frequency of their use is lower than you might think if you depend on pop culture for lessons about communities of color. Among the 567 federally recognized tribes and the hundreds recognized by states, headdresses are used by only about a dozen or so tribes. Despite the small percentage, headdresses dominate depictions of people who are Native when crafted by those who are not.
“Native Portraiture: Power and Perception” at Tacoma Art Museum (TAM) addresses romanticism, stereotypes and appropriation in Native art by non-Native artists. The exhibition combines works from the museum’s Haub Family Collection with contemporary artists. TAM is using the exhibition as a teaching moment. Rather than shy away from showing their Western art produced by people who aren’t Native, they juxtaposed the two to challenge conventional thinking.
“We can say, let’s look at this artwork and appreciate the work that the artist has done to create this, but let’s use a contemporary lens to unpack where these artists were coming from and why they painted the work in this manner,” said Curator Faith Brower. “Thankfully our views have now changed over time so we can see this work and critique it in a way that they weren’t capable of critiquing it in the time it was made.”
Brower went on to say that it’s one thing to know that art by non-Native artists can create stereotypes but it’s more easily understood when they’re displayed side by side. She purposely chose to present a higher number of works by contemporary Native artists such as Wendy Red Star, Gregg Deal and Meryl McMaster.
Deal is a member of Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. The artist-activist was on the front lines of the fight for the Washington Redskins football team to change its name. His work in the show incorporates Chief Wahoo, the logo for the Cleveland Indians. In “Faces of Indian Country 2,” the caricature’s bright red skin and wide smile is below a sepia-toned image of a Native man. He incorporates Wahoo in another mixed-media portrait as well. From Deal’s perspective, racist depictions take away the freedom for Native people to self-identify.
“I’ve had a non-Native person say to me, ‘Well you don’t look Indian, you don’t sound Indian.’ I mean, I’ve had someone even tell me that they think that I don’t speak like an Indian. I speak like a White person because I’m so articulate,” Deal said. “That kind of thing exists because of this constant drive for misunderstanding what an Indian is or even that we exist at all.”
Deal said there’s also not enough context regarding Indigenous people for Americans to fully understand why certain images are inappropriate. He points to the defense presented by some Redskins fans that the team is “carrying their legacy.” Deal scoffs at that notion, and rightfully so. Wahoo won’t be on the uniforms of Cleveland Indians players in 2019, yet many other offensive logos remain. Deal and others are going up against hundreds of years of White people controlling the narrative in a country that’s been willfully defiant in recognizing the harmful effects of othering and misrepresentation.
Native tribes aren’t a monolith, and the artists in the show have taken on varied points of view. All are well executed and demonstrate that you can’t pin Native art into a single category. Stephen Foster created two works that come to life with 3D glasses. Veloy Vigil’s “Standing Point” shows two abstracted figures and a horse. Rather than using all earth tones, Vigil opts for soft pastels and minimal details.
Red Star’s “Seasons” series is a set of four dioramas depicting spring, summer, fall and winter. She’s seated in each of the self-portraits and wears a traditional Apsáalooke (Crow) outfit. Each scene is picturesque. Freshly fallen leaves surround her to represent fall. In winter, she’s accompanied by crows, cardinals and an owl. It’s a play on the stereotype that Native people are part of the natural world.
“I think the first reaction to the work is that it’s very beautiful and they get sucked into that. And then once they get there and they start to scrutinize,” Red Star said. “There’s a wrinkle in the backdrop, that looks like AstroTurf, or the snow is made out of packing peanuts, that kind of thing. So that world then starts to fall apart for them and then they’re left with trying to decipher what is real, what isn’t real.”
She created the series in 2006 as a graduate student at University of California at Los Angeles. To ease being homesick for Montana, she visited the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles. She knew she would be able to find items from her tribe on display. Red Star said at the time she had to walk through a dinosaur exhibit to reach the section she was interested in. She realized people were likely coming away with the perception that Native culture is extinct.
"I think that museums are realizing that they have a problem and that problem is that they don’t have the Native American perspective."
“What’s happening now, a decade later, is I think that museums are realizing that they have a problem and that problem is that they don’t have the Native American perspective,” Red Star said. “All the culture has been mined and been talked about by non-Natives and I think there’s a switch now where that body of work works really well as sort of being an institutional critique piece. It tends to fit, to help articulate that in an exhibition like this.”
“Native Portraiture” is the latest example of TAM challenging its visitors to think about the imagery they’re used to seeing in a different way. The work of both Deal and Red Star is visually complex and engaging. Each are exploring Native identity in personal ways. While working against the prevailing narrative is an uphill battle, Deal keeps his wife and five children in mind. He described them as the glimmer of hope amid his cynicism.
“There needs to be someday some reconciliation to the constant and consistent amount of efforts to undermine our very existence."
“It’s so vastly important to the overall discussion because, at the end of the day, everywhere we exist within the bounds of this country is Indian land, and Indian land needs to be honored for what it is,” Deal said. “There needs to be someday some reconciliation to the constant, consistent amount of efforts to undermine our very existence. So shows like this are important in challenging that, I think.”
WHAT: “Native Portraiture: Power and Perception”
WHEN: Runs until Feb. 10, 2019
WHERE: Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge, Facebook
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