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An Indigenous Artist Collective that Raises the Bar

By offering a space for projects like R.I.S.E, Recess vitally promotes the idea of creation as a necessarily social process.

Jeffrey Gibson, tunic on display at Recess (all images via Recess's Flickrstream)
Jeffrey Gibson, tunic on display at Recess (all images via Recess’s Flickrstream)

In a social media landscape overflowing with brands that co-opt the language of social movements to appeal to hyper-conscious consumers, R.I.S.E. offers a heartening alternative: dissident cultural activism that leverages the immediacy of online sharing culture to give voice to Indigenous resistance. R.I.S.E., which stands for Radical Indigenous Survivance and Empowerment, is an initiative founded by Demian DinéYazhi´, an Indigenous Diné transdisciplinary artist and poet, and “dedicated to the education, dissemination, and evolution of Indigenous art and culture.” After initially gaining momentum on Tumblr, R.I.S.E. now makes use of an active Instagram account that posts decolonial agitprop for the digital age, promotes the work of Indigenous creators and activists, and advertises t-shirts and tote bags sold through their Etsy page.

R.I.S.E. session
R.I.S.E. session

R.I.S.E. has been given the opportunity to inhabit a physical space during a five-week long session at Recess called R.I.S.E.: COLLECTIVE FURY, “explor[ing] how outrage and anger can be mobilized not as tools of division, but as a means to solidarity and empowerment.” Recess’s sessions are process-oriented residencies that invite artists to come in and use the nonprofit’s space to create work, while also keeping the doors open for the public to view and participate in the artist’s process through workshops and events.

Zines on display for R.I.S.E.
Curated records on display for R.I.S.E.

The space doesn’t look like a typical art exhibition or even a studio housing works-in-progress, and when I first arrived, to attend “People Like Us,” a conversation between DinéYazhi´ and the multimedia artist Jeffrey Gibson, attendees were drinking “Indian Love” tea from mugs that read “RESPECT INDIGENOUS UPRISING,” and flipping through some of the books and zines displayed in the infoshop set up by DinéYazhi´. There, you can find poetry by Joy Harjo and Luci Tapahonso, Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass (a book on Indigenous plant science), and radical leftist texts like the Mary Nardini Gang’s Toward the Queerest Insurrection reprinted as zines. The abundant selection of women and queer authors on display is revealing of R.I.S.E.’s intersectional approach, one that insists on the necessity of enfolding a queer feminist critique of heteropatriarchy within a total project of resisting settler-colonial oppression — and in doing so, shows how these struggles have been linked for centuries.

R.I.S.E. merchandise
R.I.S.E. merchandise

A rack of R.I.S.E merchandise (sales of which help fund their efforts) is available for purchase as well. Two of the shirts are displayed on the wall: one has the text “Decolonize Feminism” and an image of an Indigenous woman. The other starkly states in bright red letters, “Your freedom is dependent on genocide and settler violence.” The confrontational messages — in the latter example especially — are the antithesis of a now well-known genre of easily digestible consumer feminist visibility, à la “The Future is Female.” DinéYazhi´ considers the shirts to be the equivalent of “walking billboards” intended to interrupt the flow of public space: instead of invoking hope, they provoke discomfort. I wondered who the intended wearer of such a shirt was — what would it be like to go about your day broadcasting a visual reminder of the atrocities embedded within the foundation of American culture? Seen by the wrong person at the wrong time, could it even be dangerous? This is not a shirt one is able to casually throw on — but that’s the point.

“You can’t wear it in the same way you’d wear a Keith Haring shirt,” DinéYazhi´ says. “I try my very best to help the person purchasing the shirt understand that when they’re buying this t-shirt, they’re also willing to engage in that conversation, in that discourse. If a white woman’s going to buy a ‘Decolonize Feminism’ poster or t-shirt, she’s making it her duty and obligation to learn about Indigenous feminism, hold space for Indigenous womxn, and more importantly, to have those conversations within her community.”

Demian DinéYazhi´ modeling Jeffrey Gibson's tunic
Demian DinéYazhi´ modeling Jeffrey Gibson’s tunic

During the “People Like Us” event, a tunic piece made by Gibson rested on the ground — it had just been used in a photoshoot where DinéYazhi´ had modeled some of Gibson’s garments, which are often made using Indigenous handcraft techniques. The two artists had set up the conversation as a “listening party,” taking turns playing a selection of records by Indigenous artists while Gibson projected images from the photoshoot. There was a tenderness to this exchange, which also felt notably unscripted — the two shared that they had not met in person before that day, though they had previously been in touch via the internet. Both artists address the intersection of their queer and Indigenous identities in their work, and allowing the audience to view the just-shot photos of DinéYazhi´ wearing Gibson’s garments felt like a radical offering of intimacy and trust, in which we see DinéYazhi´ not only model these wearable sculptures but perform through them.

Jeffrey Gibson (left) and Demian DinéYazhi´ (right)
Jeffrey Gibson (left) and Demian DinéYazhi´ (right)

The two shared songs from veteran folk singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie, explaining how her music had been blacklisted in the US in the 1970s, and they introduced the audience to a recently released album by the new experimental rock project Black Belt Eagle Scout. The event, like the infoshop, strongly conveyed R.I.S.E.’s dual mission to illuminate Indigenous cultural heritage, while also highlighting contemporary creators expressing Indigenous identities in new ways.

The following week, a collaborative performance between DinéYazhi´ and musician Laura Ortman took place in the space, and Gibson’s tunic, which had since been properly hung for display, asserted its own presence as a backdrop. Seeing the piece, called “Speak To Me So That I Can Understand” (2018), hanging giant and heavy on a tipi pole, it was easy to forget that it had actually been worn by DinéYazhi the week prior. In this inactive state, the queer exuberance of the tunic had quieted, but it was easier to see how Gibson’s chosen materials — electric blue nylon fringe, digitally printed polyester, vintage Seminole patchwork, metal jingles — fuse traditional artistry with an effusively kitschy kind of craft experimentation that happily confuses the garment’s classification as ceremonial or celebratory dress.

Jeffrey Gibson's tunic
Jeffrey Gibson’s tunic

R.I.S.E.: COLLECTIVE FURY is a perfect example of how Recess’s uniquely open-ended sessions support artists whose practices center on community engagement and resist easy categorization within the art world. R.I.S.E. is unlike a typical ‘artist collective,’ and is more accurately described as a highly adaptable network of individual Indigenous creators, with DinéYazhi´ serving as an organizing locus.

Zine display for R.I.S.E.
Zine display for R.I.S.E.

The creative practices of the people involved are incredibly diverse, as are their geographic locations, and while some (like Gibson) live in cities and exhibit artwork at galleries and museums, others are based throughout the wider US, producing podcasts, publishing poetry, and composing music. R.I.S.E.: COLLECTIVE FURY is also a testament to social media as a resource for politically-engaged network-building that’s able to make real impacts beyond the screen. By offering a space for projects like R.I.S.E, Recess vitally promotes the idea of creation as a necessarily social process, and of audience interventions and engagement as critically important resources for contemporary art production.

R.I.S.E.: COLLECTIVE FURY runs until February 9 at Recess (46 Washington Avenue, Navy Yard, Brooklyn), when there will be a closing event with a zine fair, panel discussion, and screening at Recess’s space.

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