The following is an interview with artist Bently Spang, whose work appears in the Brooklyn Museum’s current Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains exhibit. Through the interview, Spang explores ideas of Native American identity, cultural stereotypes and the difficulty of showing Native American spiritual objects in museum spaces. The Brooklyn Museum show makes progress, Spang says, but there remain problems to be solved.
A traditional 19th-century Sioux warrior shirt in the Brooklyn Museum’s current Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains exhibit is made from buckskin, decorated with green and red pigment, hair, feather, fiber and a white and red beaded bear claw motif. Like all Plains war shirts, it could only be worn by males after acts of bravery in battle.
Exhibited just a few feet away, Northern Cheyenne contemporary artist Bently Spang’s “War Shirt #3, The Great Divide” (2006) is made out of photographs, photographic film, sinew, velvet and found objects such as the compact disc pinned on the shirt’s center like a decorative medallion or amulet. Its arms are outstretched through a white plastic stand in the form of a “t” and two tiny white plastic toy horses flank either side of its base. Like the traditional Sioux shirt, Spang’s is now ensconced in a glass case but it has never been — nor will it ever be — worn.
Every so often an art review riles readers and critics enough to actually respond to it. That’s what happened after New York Times art critic Ken Johnson’s review of the Brooklyn Museum’s Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains exhibit was published a week and a half ago. Johnson is not shy about stating his assessment up front, leading with “You know there’s trouble when the first object you encounter in a museum exhibition looks as if it had been misplaced from the gift shop.” Johnson faults the museum for exhibiting “kitschy” contemporary Native American artists alongside the “outstanding” mostly 19th-century Plains objects that make up the majority of the exhibition.