Half a century ago, many Native American artists trying to break into the fine art market were told that their oil paintings would never sell because they were not recognizably “Indian” enough. These artists were instead encouraged to paint with earthy pigments on natural materials such as hide or bark. The belief was that art by Native artists could only sell if it was recognizably Native in its content and material, simultaneously exotic and traditional. Eventually that attitude was replaced by the understanding that indigenous artists cannot be limited to constructed notions of what “Nativeness” looks like.
At the Marc Straus gallery, a solo show of new work by Choctaw/Cherokee artist Jeffrey Gibson asks for a serious evaluation of expectations of such Nativeness. It appears that recognizably Native forms are once again being emphasized, this time at the service of a global market that seeks to subsume indigeneity through the unbridled commodification of identity and difference. The emphasis on a particular kind of Native that is traditional, a problematic term often tied to an essentialized past rather than lived experience, is clear from the exhibition press release, which states that Gibson’s work intermingles “more traditional Native American art with contemporary art and culture.” Gibson’s new work, however, eludes such a binary, instead expanding the boundaries of contemporary Native identity beyond anything reducible to commodifiable difference.
The abstract acrylic and graphite paintings on stretched deer rawhide are the most demonstrable sites of this contestation. “Document, 2015” (2015) is a full deer hide pegged onto the wall with steel spikes. Its precise monochrome geometry contrasts with the natural shape and color of the hide. As the rectilinear composition stretches into the corners (or legs) of the hide it quickly becomes both schematic and skeletal. At first impression it is as easy as the press release suggests — the naturalness of the hide is the referent to Gibson’s Native heritage, brought forward from the past by the modernist painting style. But resistances to such a reduction build up quickly. Gibson, a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, did not grow up in what he describes as a traditional community, having moved frequently with his military family and later in life attending art schools in Chicago and the UK. The Native tradition supposedly represented by the deer hide is one that Gibson readily admits he didn’t live. Gibson has to source his hides and does not prepare them himself in any “traditional” fashion; the term and its timeless associations quickly lose their efficacy here.
Far from traditional, two hulking, figural sculptures nonetheless emerge from a place of deep heritage for Gibson. With ceramic heads set on spindly wooden frames, these figures are cloaked in blankets, weighed down with tassels, beads, and the neon ribbons and tin jingle cones favored for contemporary powwow dance outfits. Thick beading spells out phrases on the shoulders of the blankets. The jingles, originally invented by the Anishinaabe out of snuff box lids, are here sourced from a powwow regalia company which produces them in Taiwan. “ALL FOR ONE, ONE FOR ALL” (2015) stands on three wooden legs, red and blue glaze pouring down its clay face. Gibson’s points of reference for these ceramic heads are effigy pots from the Mississippian culture, a civilization ancestral to the Choctaw, and he is interested in the alternative history this culture represents. There is a violence to these figures; their eyes weep and holes in their heads open up like visceral orifices, suggesting puncture wounds and bullet holes. The violence recalls another history, that of colonial conquest, which the United States still fails to fully recognize. Gibson, who has worked with collections of Native art at institutions including the Field Museum in Chicago, was once told how to recognize when the hole in a hide shirt was made by a bullet. He says these figures come from a traumatic place, yet are cathartic.
The text on these blankets is a new exploration for Gibson, and in a series of beaded wall hangings text serves to interweave his queer and indigenous identities. Having not grown up in a local Native community, Gibson asked “Who are my elders?” He found his answer in Boy George, Grace Jones, and other figures of gay disco whose words became his mantras. Culture Club lyrics make up “IN TIME WE COULD HAVE BEEN SO MUCH MORE” (2015), which also hangs heavy with jingles. Tacking down identity is futile here as the slippery disco lyrics also resonate with tense histories of racial conflict and conquest. “AMERICAN HISTORY (JB)” (2015) quotes James Baldwin’s observation that “American history is longer, larger, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” It is Gibson’s most direct reference to the painful and ongoing history of Native American experience in this country.
Five of Gibson’s beaded, repurposed punching bags hang from the ceiling in an upstairs gallery. The meticulously beaded forms have matured from the urgency of his first attempts to learn the painstaking Haudenosaunee beading techniques. The craft of making has become a matter of faith for Gibson. “I’m taken by the faith people from communities have in the act of making or speaking to objects,” he told Hyperallergic. “The belief system is more expansive than anything I’ve experienced in an art dialogue.” “YOU’RE GONNA MISS ME WHEN I’M GONE” (2015) inflects that craft with a pixelated effect, a digital aesthetic that for Gibson keeps the craft and material in dialogue with the contemporary. The text is another lyric, this one from a 13th Floor Elevators song, which nonetheless recalls the historically held belief that Native Americans were a doomed and dying race.
The tassels of “I CAN SEE YOU” (2015) sway as the viewer walks between the punching bags, again invoking powwow dancers. The bags are meant to be triumphant, but to what extent are they hanging trophies? The aestheticizing display of buffalo robes in the Metropolitan Museum’s Plains Indians exhibition earlier this year left many begging for the works to be brought down from the wall and activated by being worn. Gibson has made an attempt at this kind of activation in his show, and he is now looking toward performance and creating wearable garments where function is not divorced from form. But when the wall hangings are brought down and placed onto the backs of his effigy figures, are those blankets activated? Or are the figures simply fetishes, mannequins in a diorama of Nativeness which is now installed in the commercial gallery rather than the anthropological museum?
Gibson takes his forms from a constellation of Native traditions, not all of which he has claim to, and in turn certain forms are presented to the market homogenously as “traditionally Native.” This body of work, however, challenges the reduction of Native art to that which is traditional. It makes clear and static distinctions between Native and contemporary art and identity unsustainable. Gibson makes alternative histories visible, and his indigenous identity emerges from the intermingled circulation of the Native in the contemporary and vice versa, refusing to be subsumed by the commodification of difference. Nonetheless, as capital constantly seeks to co-opt heritage, Gibson should consider from whom permission must come to make use of forms that he admits he does not have explicit access to and only then deploy them to challenge those market forces.