Interviews

“When You Tell Someone You’re an Artist that Is Native, They Tell You Who You Should Be”

Installation view of 'free play' at Trestle Projects (unless noted, all images courtesy of the artists and Trestle Gallery)
Installation view of ‘free play’ at Trestle Projects (unless noted, all images courtesy of the artists and Trestle Gallery)

How can one unmoor markers of identity from essentialized contexts while maintaining cultural heritage as a central part of one’s art practice? Wife and husband duo Maria Hupfield and Jason Lujan investigated that question while in residence for a month at Trestle Gallery‘s project space in Gowanus, Brooklyn, where they were invited by curator-in-residence Melissa Staiger.

Both artists maintain individual practices while working together as Native Art Department International, a collaborative project that focuses on the circulation of art in international contexts to function as, in their words, an “emancipation from identity-based artwork.” The results of their residency are on view in the Trestle Projects exhibition free play, a contrast in styles that nonetheless works to point out the plasticity of contemporary indigeneity and the failure of stereotypes to account for what Native Art should look like today.

The duo will continue the themes of their collaborations in Chez BKLYN, an exhibition highlighting the fluidity of individual and group dynamics of collective art practices, at Galleri SE Konst in Sweden, in August. Prior to that and to the closing of free play, we sat down to discuss how the two work together to challenge identity-based responses to indigenous artists.

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Christopher Green: From Jason’s graphically intense Zuni patterning and printwork to Maria’s soft felt woven baskets and costumes, you have very contrasting approaches to form. How does your work interact, and do your practices inform or compliment one another?

Maria Hupfield, "Bright Ideas Basket Installation with Instructions" (2016), wall installation with table, industrial felt, small jingle bells, thread, and polyfil, dimensions variable
Maria Hupfield, “Bright Ideas Basket Installation with Instructions” (2016), wall installation with table, industrial felt, small jingle bells, thread, and polyfil, dimensions variable (click to enlarge)

Jason Lujan: Our work doesn’t necessarily interact although we seem to getting closer to something like it. We had initially tried working as RTST (Raiding The Same Territory), an anonymous collaborative team — anonymous because we wanted that output separate from our individual artwork and identities — but it failed because sites and organizations did not want to keep who we are a secret.

Maria Hupfield: We share a studio space and seeing our work next to each other in there can sometimes give the feeling of a long-term, ever-changing dual exhibition. This show was a formalization of this.

CG: You work together as the Native Art Department International; how much of that project is present here?

JL: It’s important to point out the organization title is Native Art Department and not Native American Art Department; that is an important distinction. That project is largely about presenting communication platforms and alternative systems of community support, as well as placing indigenous art practices side-by-side with the world at large.

MH: It’s important for artists to generate and frame our own content so we’re not always looking at institutions to co-opt and define it outside of our awareness. Too often when one is a Native artist people are instrumentalizing it, telling you what your work is about and what it is doing. When you tell someone you’re an artist, they ask what kind of art you make; when you tell someone you’re an artist that is Native, they tell you who you should be, what your politics are, and what you should be making work about.

Jason Lujan, "Study for Two Houses at War" (2016, above), paint on linen, framed, 18 x 24 in; and "Found and Collected Items" (2015–16, below), framed and unframed works on shelf, dimensions variable
Jason Lujan, “Study for Two Houses at War” (2016, above), paint on linen, framed, 18 x 24 in; and “Found and Collected Items” (2015–16, below), framed and unframed works on shelf, dimensions variable (click to enlarge)

CG: Among your “Found and Collected Items,” Jason, is a cropped image of an old five-dollar silver certificate that featured the Hunkpapa Chief Running Antelope, an allusion to the recent Harriet Tubman $20 bill controversy. To what end do you see the “emancipation from identity-based artwork” operating with such politics? Is it also aesthetic, personal?

JL: We are both constantly negotiating how to create independent positions for ourselves as artists without falling into the crutch of identity politics or bland universalism (one facet of this is pan-American Indianism). It’s problematic to try to define Native America or the Indian experience, so we do our best to refuse being categorized in terms of discourses on identity politics and postcolonial studies.

MH: Artists who assume the mantle of “indigenous spokesperson” can find that it’s difficult to resist falling into a trap of eventually becoming a cultural informant. Cultural drag comes into play as well, and it often benefits the individual at the expense of a community. New York City is one of, if not THE, hub of identity, making it, for me, political, aesthetic, and personal all at once.

Maria Hupfield and Jason Lujan, "Drink Bar for Two" (2016), five sake bottles, pink light, self, 12 x 4 x 24 in (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Maria Hupfield and Jason Lujan, “Drink Bar for Two” (2016), five sake bottles, pink light, self, 12 x 4 x 24 in (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

CG: How do you emancipate the cultural signifiers present in your work, like split-ash baskets or Zuni patterns?

JL: One of the things Maria and I often discuss is the nature of plasticity with indigenous languages (thankfully, both of ours are still alive, although constantly under threat) and the disappearance of these languages. Visual art is also a language, specific to one individual, and when that person dies, it will be gone forever, any continuance merely imitation. For me, patterns are a stand-in for language and so it’s of interest to see how and if culturally specific patterns can intersect or be blended with each other.

MH: Cultural signifiers do not need to be exclusive to one particular context anymore. In my case I see things in my own work that travel between all the places I have lived. For example, the industrial felt I see in design stores in Manhattan recalls the snow boot liners from back home in Canada. We’re not trying to redefine Native Art, nor are we essentializing Native culture or knowledge; it’s an entry point.

Maria Hupfield and Jason Lujan’s free play continues at Trestle Projects (400 Third Avenue, Gowanus, Brooklyn) through June 11. They will be in attendance at the gallery on June 11, from noon–4pm, for a closing event.

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