When rap group Public Enemy released the song “Fight the Power” in 1989 it spoke to discontent in the Black community and the need to rise up against an oppressive system. The tune was more than catchy. It was an anthem; an unflinching statement of Black pride. Early in the song Chuck D raps, “Got to give us what we want / Gotta give us what we need / Our freedom of speech is freedom or death / We got to fight the powers that be.”
Jeffrey Gibson uses a portion of Public Enemy’s lyrics in the mixed media piece “What We Want, What We Need” in “Like A Hammer,” a new exhibition on display at Seattle Art Museum (SAM). Crimson beads spell out the title of the work against a blue-and-black beaded background. According to the gallery text, the artist shaped the work that hangs on the wall like a Chilkat robe, a garment associated with the origins and wealth of Northwest Native clans. Below the beads, he created a checkerboard impression by layering rows of black and white yarn, as a nod to his love for Vans as a teenager. Trinkets and old pieces of jewelry he’s collected over the years also adorn the work.
Gibson listened to “Fight the Power” while working on the piece and he pondered how the lyrics relate to Indigenous communities. He is of Cherokee heritage and a citizen of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.
He related his experience as an Indigenous person to the message of the song. “It can be maybe easy to fall into the kind of traps of trauma and seeking other people to come and help you,” said Gibson. “But ultimately, for me, I feel like it’s our responsibility to help our own communities.”
“Like A Hammer” is a major survey of Gibson’s works from 2011 to present day. It’s an exhibition of textiles, elaborate sculptures, abstract paintings on deer hide and two videos. More than 65 striking and dramatic works fill the gallery. These vibrant creations are also thought-provoking. The influence of his ancestry and pop culture is clear. He also uses text throughout the works in the show, featuring the words of James Baldwin in multi-colored beads: “American history is longer, larger, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”
A focal point of the exhibition is 15 beaded punching bags hanging from the ceiling. Through beadwork, fringe and text, Gibson has transformed a boxing tool built for durability into an ornate object. In many the brand name “Everlast” is still visible. It’s also the title of the first punching bag he converted, which still holds sentimental value for the contemporary artist.
The series began when Gibson found himself at a turning point, questioning whether or not he wanted to continue being an artist. He persisted through his doubts. At the time someone remarked that he was an angry person and would likely benefit from talking with a counselor. The artist began seeing a therapist who suggested he work with a trainer, which led to boxing. The trainer would ask him who he was angry at — who did he want to hit and kick?
“I realized with things like homophobia, racism, classism, all of these things. They are societal conditions. There’s not really one singular person that I was really angry at,” said Gibson. “They have their hold on us culturally. So that’s really what the process was about — working through those things.”
At the same time, Gibson was doing research on artists in Winnipeg, Oregon, South Dakota and Oklahoma who were making their own regalia. Their sense of pride and conviction had a significant impact on his work, so he began to modify punching bags. Initially, he planned to only make one, but now the number is more than 45. He sees the punching bags as accessible formats for people to think about identity and also their relationship to achievement, even adding messages in beads across the fabric of the bags, such as “I put a spell on you.”
Gibson created his own lifesize version of the scales of justice, two heavy bags covered in beads hanging at different heights in “Our Freedom is Worth More Than Our Pain.” It’s a reflection of the divisive political climate. Gibson describes himself as liberal, but he’s a firm believer in hearing all sides whether he agrees or not.
“I’m always thinking about what is it that I can put out to the world that somehow maybe helps to stabilize it a bit more than it is right now,” Gibson said.
Gibson was born in Colorado and currently lives in upstate New York. He has a BFA from the Art Institute of Chicago and an MA from the Royal College of Art in London, and has won numerous awards while exhibiting nationally and internationally. SAM Curator of Native American Art Barbara Brotherton described his work as fearless yet playful and defying categorization.
Gibson’s ability to materialize his point of a view in an engaging way speaks to his mastery of techniques as well as understanding of how to effectively reach audiences.
The final piece in the exhibition is a rainbow flag-influenced multimedia installation. The title, “Don’t Make Me Over,” comes from the 1962 song written by Burt Bacharach and sung by Dionne Warwick. In the song, Warwick’s soothing voice croons, “Just love me with all my faults the way that I love you” and “accept me for what I am / accept me for the things that I do.” The lyrics are printed on the colorful curtain that surrounds an oversized garment while a video of Gibson wearing it plays in the same space.
“I wanted to make something that really explored camp and kitsch with an LGBTQ history and the rainbow of course is going to be a part of that,” said Gibson, who is gay. He shied away from the iconic symbol in the past, but today he feels differently. “Now, looking back, I feel like I owe so much to that history. And I’m very proud of it and I also just wanted it, to kind of make it my own.”
As Gibson put it, “A person who is like a hammer is able to build up and tear down — envisioning something different and making it happen.” It’s exactly what he’s done with this body of work. Gibson has constructed complex works of art in an expansive show that’s mesmeric from start to finish.
WHAT: “Jeffrey Gibson: Like A Hammer”
WHEN: Runs until May 12
WHERE: Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave., Seattle
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. Follow Lisa on Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge
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