SAN ANTONIO — “In my public school education Crow history was not taught, and it wasn’t until college that I learned about Native American history,” the artist Wendy Red Star said in an interview with the curator Nadiah Rivera Fellah in 2018. “Learning that history felt revolutionary to me, and it inspired my desire to learn about the history of the Crow Nation and reeducate myself with knowledge, which I could then share visually with a broad audience.”
A survey of Red Star’s work, Wendy Red Star: A Scratch on the Earth at the San Antonio Museum of Art, clearly shows how this drive has pervaded the artist’s career. Originally organized by the Newark Museum of Art, the exhibition features more than 40 artworks produced between 2006 and 2019. In it, Red Star moves deftly between a wide variety of media, including photography, sculpture, textiles, and installation, and utilizes a complex and compelling mixture of archival and historical sources as well as material from her own life.
The exhibition’s title refers to a United States government policy enforced after 1880 that aimed to keep the Crow on their reservation in present-day Montana, although their traditional lands once spanned 38.5 million acres. Red Star was born and raised on this reservation, and her work is focused on interrogating and contesting the ways that Crow people and culture have been represented by outside forces through time.
Red Star’s Four Seasons (2006) series was inspired by a visit to a natural history museum in California, where the artist saw dioramas with artificial landscapes meant to depict Native American life. “They presented Native American culture as something static or in the past,” exhibition curator Lana Meador told Hyperallergic on a recent tour. “So she created her own kind of diorama using the Western art historical theme of the four seasons to play up this dichotomy of authenticity and falsehood.” Here, with critical wit, Red Star poses in traditional Crow regalia amid hunting decoys, crinkled backdrops, and astroturf, challenging the offensive, outmoded ways that Native Americans have often been imaged and imagined in Euro-American culture.
Another reference to European art history appears in “My Home Is Where My Tipi Sits” (2011). Red Star’s photos of sweat lodges, HUD houses, cars, signs, and churches from the Crow reservation are arranged in tight grids that recall Hilla and Bernd Becher’s austere 20th-century black and white photos of European and North American industrial architecture. However, Red Star resists the Bechers’ distanced, ethnographic tone by recording her subjects up close and in color. Her works send the message that her community’s landscape is best documented by someone from the inside.
The Apsáalooke Feminist (2016) series shows the artist and her daughter wearing Crow regalia and sitting on a couch. Though they appear to be at leisure, the women also seem to be waiting for something. “They’re really subverting the gaze here,” Meador said. “The two are looking out at us and asserting their presence.” The piece is a nod to the Crow’s matrilineal tradition, and a counterpoint to the many photos taken of male Crow members on peace delegations to Washington DC in the late 19th century. These works also serve to affirm an empowered future for women like Red Star and her daughter. This double orientation — examining both the past and what’s still to come — is one of Red Star’s many strengths. This exhibition allows us to appreciate this and other aspects of her rich, multifaceted practice.
Wendy Red Star: A Scratch on the Earth continues at the San Antonio Museum of Art (200 West Jones Avenue, San Antonio, Texas) through May 8. The exhibition was organized by the Newark Museum of Art and curated by Nadiah Rivera Fellah, guest curator, and Tricia Laughlin Bloom, Newark’s curator of American Art.
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