On Twitter recently, #NotYourNarrative popped up, and it revealed a series of hashtag statements largely from persons of color in the United States who wanted to challenge dominant media narratives. In a media environment where people’s lived experiences are often told by those who have never had those experiences, reclaiming one’s own narrative is a powerful act in itself. That the internet is becoming a way to transform narratives is a powerful new reality, but how does art fit into this story?
I recently learned about the What Tribe Project, an art initiative by artist Douglas Miles, who recently hosted an exhibition in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, on the topic of Native American self-representation. The project, which was featured in a photo essay on LA Taco, seemed particularly interesting for its mix of physical space exhibition and a strong online presence.
“What Tribe came about as an answer to address numerous instances of stereotype[s] of Native American people in media,” noted DOUGLAS MILES, who asked to have his name appear in all caps when quoted.
Miles lives and works on the San Carlos Apache Nation and has also exhibited at the Denver University Anthropology Museum and in Phoenix. “The most notable were Johnny Depp’s irksome archaic subservient role in Disney’s The Long Ranger and No Doubt’s now pulled video ‘Looking Hot‘ with Gwen Stefani as captive Native woman complete with headdress in a teepee,” he said.
What Tribe retains an active Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter presence, where the themes of its exhibitions live on online. This becomes an important way to broadcast the work, as so many Indian territories remain off the radar in mainstream American media and travel guides. The images you’ll find on his various accounts (@dmiles1_apache, @instapache1, and @whattribe) reflect an intersection between skater and street art culture with hashtags and poetic statements.
“Skateboarding in itself,” MILES explained, “like hip-hop is an inclusive art form and culture. The internet and its user-friendly social networks are also inclusive and key in informing people of new upcoming projects and issues. For people of color (especially Native People) who have little media representation, social networks become diverse main sources of fast info.”
The way we manipulate media online retains a lot of similarities with street culture, where artists, especially underrepresented ones, find a voice through repurposed media, whether that be a building wall or a street corner. The use of hashtags in the #IdleNoMore movement, the #NotYourNarrative hashtag, and others reflect individuals’ repurposing of the social internet, our digital public space. Meanwhile, the strong online presence of art projects like What Tribe operates in parallel with physical world interactions like gatherings and mural making. As he plans for future exhibitions, MILES hopes to address continuing stereotypes and narratives, while encouraging other Native American artists to take ownership of their narrative:
Mainstream American media continually reports on the poverty and psycho-social health issues in Indian Country. This has created an exaggerated in media epidemic of communal depression poverty psychosis/crisis in Native American communities …The best way to address this negative subliminal stereotype processes is with original media that not only focuses on the opposite, but shares [on] the truth about life in Indian Country. That’s where my own photography comes in and why I started Apaches And Angels on tumblr.It’s war on Natives in media, we ain’t going out without a fight.