It’s haunting how the open eyes of Edward Curtis’s subject are projected onto the closed eyes of the artist Meryl McMaster in her self-portrait, Ancestral 7. We are “looking at the past through the present,” literally, looking at past images projected onto the bodily screen of the present.
Many contemporary Indigenous American artists remix Edward Curtis photographs. Kent Monkman does it often, and says of his series Emergence of a Legend: “The studio portraits, shot, printed, and framed to emulate antique daguerrotypes, feature my alter ego Miss Chief Eagle Testickle in various performance guises. The photos trace the history of Aboriginal performance culture — more specifically ‘Indians’ performing for a European audience.” By inserting queer and two-spirit native bodies into historical photographs that were used to erase them, Monkman highlights how history is always a blend of fact and fantasy. He is also referencing Cindy Sherman and, by extension, postmodern ideas of simulacra, gender performativity, and the hyperreal. (Sherman would dress up as an actress and stage “stills” from films that don’t exist).
Indigenous artists today and in the past reference world art movements, and often speak of their identity as shaped by tribal traditions but also film, music, and popular culture. Their artworks explore their identity as influenced by the multicultural globalized world, all entangled with stereotypes and non-native imposed languages and categories.
Indigenous American Pop Art
Pop art is an artifact of the 1960s, a comment on television and consumer culture, “The speed of shallow,” as Warhol put it. It’s mass production, bright shiny surfaces, Mickey Mouse, Murakami, Michael Jackson, Jeff Koons. Subverting by inverting, pop art makes the low become high. The popular, kitschy imagery of the shallow masses is enlarged, repeated, and treated with plenty of convincing, philosophical backing as the avant-garde or culturally evolved ‘leading edge’ of art and commentary and aesthetics and business. Print culture meets street culture meets museum culture meets the speed of shallow.
Calling contemporary Native American art “pop art,” or calling works that remix popular imagery with a pinch of humor and sarcasm, may be inappropriate. Indigenous popular art is itself an aesthetic which developed through a cultural genocide–a bit different than the Euro-American New York school of a-political, white people pop art.
Nevertheless, a number of artists proudly own this label of Native Pop artist. Haskell alumn Steven Paul Judd jokingly calls himself Andy Warrior-hall, and we can find that as the Pop Art of the sixties mirrored its youth culture, Native Pop mirrors indigenous youth culture of today.
Hopi Princess Leia
One of Steven Paul Judd’s most iconic images is a digital collage called Hopi Princess Leia. In this piece, Judd brings together Edward Curtis’s 1921 photograph “Pulini and Koyame” from his multivolume collection The North American Indian, (Volume 12: “The Hopi,”) and a still shot from Star Wars of Princess Leia pointing a gun. The two Hopi maidens are in their traditional dress with the squash blossom hairdo that was typical for unmarried women.
Hopi Princess Leia invites different interpretations from Native and non-Native audiences. It first of all points to a resemblance between Leia’s hairstyle and Hopi girls’–a visual rhyming, or punning, or pinging, which is really interesting by itself. A non-Native viewer may notice the witty play of the piece, the skillful photo-shopping, but not go any further. And according to Judd, this is fine. There doesn’t need to be any deeper meaning.
Native audiences, on the other hand, may immediately refer to the narrative logic of Star Wars and American Imperialism, and see the Hopi women as participants in the Rebellion alongside Princess Leia. In this way, this image manages to write Hopi women into the Star Wars narrative. Maybe Princess Leia is Hopi! Or maybe she just represents another white lady playing Indian.
Judd often chooses to modify Edward Curtis photographs specifically. Curtis’s photographs were instrumental in their time in establishing stereotypes about Native Americans, especially the “vanishing Indian” stereotype. Judd’s insertion of Princess Leia into Curtis’s photograph counters the idea of the Indian of the past as he is consciously placing a character of contemporary popular culture into the image of Native Americans, as opposed to Curtis’s editing out of any objects and signs of modernity from his photographs of the Indigenous peoples.
And Curtis did edit his photographs, using early photo-shop/fakery.
I was shocked to find Curtis’s infamous Piegan Lodge photograph at The Museum of Native American History next to Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, Arkansas. It’s an incredible museum, many tribal and ethnic arts, I’ve never seen so many arrowheads. But decorating or setting the mood for the room that contained Navajo rugs and Indian headdresses were about half a dozen Edward Curtis photographs, including the most famous fake, In a Piegan Lodge, where he edits out the clock sitting on the blanket with the other objects. Of course, we now know that photography is not objective, all photographs are taken from a perspective, altered, and are situated in history. But at the time, the turn of the century, people trusted photographs to deliver truth. Curtis is also famous for taking a briefcase around full of wigs and blankets he would give to his subjects if they didn’t look Indian enough.
I love Judd’s work because Princess Leia, like Miss Chief Eagle Testicle, questions the historical accuracy of Curtis’s photographs. We are now meant to look at Curtis’s photos like we would pictures in a comic book, or a Sherman-esque fictional film still. Kent Monkman does something similar when he inserts Native drag queens in pink high heels into Hudson River Valley landscape paintings.
The caption Judd provides on his Facebook page for the piece suggests another interpretation of Hopi Princess Leia, which makes it offer multiple readings that do not necessarily agree with each other. The caption is a quote from Princess Leia: “For the last time, my great, great, great-grandmother was a Hopi Indian Princess, that’s what makes me a Princess!” It’s so funny! Judd makes Leia someone “playing Indian,” a kind of “imperialist nostalgia,” which is a colonizer’s coping mechanism–to celebrate and consume the cultural imagery of the raped, murdered, and destroyed. Judd is also toying with the widespread stereotype of the Indian princess grandmother so often employed by white people attempting to pass for Indians. Philip Deloria (1998) explores how and why the settler wants to be made indigenous, even if only through disguise, or other forms of “playing Indian.” Playing Indian is a powerful U.S. pastime, beginning most famously with the Boston Tea Party.
Native American artists were not the only ones remixing other cultures’ imagery. The settler Americans were remixing native images as well, images which contemporary arts will remix again. Let’s look at a tiny object, a ritual object that we can understand as an “outward expression of an inward state.” Let’s look at the beloved Indian Head Penny.
Minted from 1859 to 1909, the lowest value of all currency but also the most widely used and distributed, (and now a coveted collector’s item), for many Settler Americans this penny was the first image of a Native American they ever saw. And it’s not even an Indian — it was modeled after a crouching Venus statue. It’s just another white woman in an Indian headdress! The stated intention was to make a sign for indigenous America and to honor it on the currency, which seems progressive, right? What’s disturbing, however, is that there is no name, so it does not commemorate a specific “person” for accomplishments or contributions to America (as is the case for all other currency bearing the portrait of an individual). This Indian is unnamed, which people at the time said was profound and spiritual — we are looking at the universal “essence” instead of at the individual. But no, the anonymity of this character is akin to that of the nameless animals also displayed on currency as icons for the empire.
The Indian headdress, or what the designer of the coin called “a feathered Tierra to match Lady Liberty’s,” transforms the profile from just a head on a penny into the Indian head penny. These two things, the feathered headdress and the head, go together to form the hybrid symbol for “Native American.” In this way, Plains Indians became the symbol for all American Indians, eclipsing and erasing hundreds of different cultures in one swift move.
The Plains Indian Head, in all its variations, continues to thrive in the American imagination. We use a version of it as our school logo at Haskell. The head, alongside other plains Indian motifs, also associate with food and consumption: They appear on gas stations, food containers, chips, beef jerky, orange juice, cornmeal, cereal, honey, butter. Author Adrienne Keane (Creek) collects these images in her essay: “I eat stereotypes like you for breakfast.”
Here is another great example of this stereotype, presented by Chiricahua Apache Professor Nancy Mithlo in Consumerism, Consumption, Control: American Indian Commodification in Popular Culture and Arts. This game was included in an exhibit installed at California State University, Sacramento, of popular games and toys that dated from the 1930s through the 2000s. Native Children also played these games! And, by the way, this is why Indian mascots are so damaging. The fact that the “Indian” can only be correctly matched to the teepees is, according to Mithlo, a monumental step in socializing children to internalize the reserved yet restricted space allotted to “Indian” in the American imagination. By default, the “Indian” is then unassociated with other potential sites for placement included in the game, like going to school, having a job or taking a bath. This basic theme appears on other toys, including Warpath Willie (1970s) and Chief Leo, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle (1990s).
Mithlo calls these images of native Americans “wallpaper” that lines the inside of our minds, wallpaper that we see all the time, and therefore, becomes invisible. Also in the 90s we get to see Disney’s Pocahontas, we see Native American Barbies, Hawk in Twin Peaks, and Littlebear the Iroquois from the 1995 film Indian In the Cupboard, played by a Cherokee actor and rapper, Litefoot.
Adriane Keene and others also point out the persistence of the Plains Indian stereotypes across genres, into depictions of the Dothraki in Game of Thrones, or the Centaurs in Harry Potter.
Here we see a Native American Playing Indian. Wendy Red Star inserts her own face onto actual romance novels, replacing the white woman who was dressed up as a sexualized Native American. Red Star highlights the ridiculousness of the stereotype, exaggerating it to point it out. Magnification leads to elimination. Perhaps exposing it to light dissolves it, like a critter burning away under the intensified light of a magnifying glass.
I love Cara Romero’s photograph Naomi which is on view at Nelson Atkins Museum of Art. In Romero’s large, poster-sized photograph, a young woman, wearing and surrounded by an intriguing assortment of objects, stands in a box-like space. “I had this idea to do doll boxes,” Romero said. “It was about representation, about how we [Native people] never see ourselves accurately represented with dolls. If you look at dolls in truck stops, they’re always very pan-Indian. They never do us justice. They’re always disappointing.”
The model for Naomi is a Northern Chumash woman from San Luis Obispo. Romero photographed the woman wearing necklaces of pine nuts and olivella snails, abalone, and clamshells; an abalone-decorated dress; and a traditional basket hat and face tattoos. Arranged around her figure is a winnowing basket used to gather acorns and other traditional Chumash items, along with several big pine cones placed like a sculpture on a pedestal.
The outside box frame is decorated with a grid of black-and-white triangles; which is like a pine cone pattern that sometimes shows up in traditional Chumash beadwork and basketry designs. “That black-and-white pattern and the hot pink makes it modern California,” Romero said. “It celebrates the mom’s regalia making, and it’s a way to almost put it in a museum diorama so you can see visually all the uses, all the importance of the objects to a modern Chumash woman.” But, and I don’t know if this was intentional, but there is a strange connection between something like this, a woman wrapped in plastic, and something like the Pena and Fusco’s couple in a cage, or James Luna’s artifact piece, where he laid down half-naked in a display case. The pink points to the present, but also to the Native American aesthetic of brilliance, or how bright colors are always valued over dull ones.
Frank Buffalo Hide: “When working on a piece, I tap into the universal mind. The collective unconsciousness of the 21st century…Overlapping imagery to mimic the way the mind holds information: nonlinear and without separation.”
In Luger’s “stereo type,” parts of Barrymore’s photo adorn a ceramic boombox, literally a type of stereo. Dreamcatchers are placed where the speakers would be, and the red, white, and blue trim references the Budweiser apron. To complete the work, Lugar destroys the stereotypes by breaking them each on a stone in the gallery. I asked him if this was a reference to art history and the custom of breaking pottery before burying it in the ground. He said “Not really. The stone represents the unbreakable heart of who we really are.”
Colonialism is ongoing. Illegitimate borders are policed, and black, brown, and poor people are killed, marginalized, erased. The dominant culture’s xenophobic reaction to Mexicans and Mexican-Americans (who are, by the way, excluded from JFK’s book “A Nation of Immigrants”) relates to their reactions to indigenous Americans.
This is brought up by the art collective Postcommodity. Their 2-mile long ephemeral land-art installation Repellant Fence is comprised of 26 tethered balloons, each 10 feet in diameter, that float 100 feet above the desert landscape. Half on the US side and half on the Mexico side. The balloons that comprise Repellent Fence are enlarged replicas of an ineffective bird repellent product. We see the pop-art Brillo Boxes aesthetic of enlarging and copying a “low” consumer product. Coincidently, these bird repellent balloons use indigenous medicine colors and iconography — the same bulls-eye graphic used by indigenous peoples from South America to Canada for thousands of years. The artists say the purpose of this monument is to “bi-directionally reach across the U.S./Mexico border as a suture that stitches the peoples of the Americas together — symbolically demonstrating the interconnectedness of the Western Hemisphere by recognizing the land, indigenous peoples, history, relationships, movement and communication.” They also talk about how balloons are inherently disarming: it’s hard to take yourself or others too seriously if you are holding a balloon.
“We see the installations, land art, and socially engaged works Postcommodity creates as a collective form of “reimagined ceremony” that reflects aspects of traditional indigenous ceremonies, in that they are immersive, interactive, multimodal, durational, shared, generative, and sacred. As with traditional ways, indigenous reimagined ceremony supports building and maintaining public memory, knowledge creation, intergenerational knowledge-transfer and relationships, placemaking, health, and governance. Through art we use indigenous knowledge systems to prepare a grounds for ceremony.”
This effort to unite the Americas reminds me of Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar’s seminal work A Logo for America that features a new American flag appearing across the digital billboards of Time Square.
Navajo composer and member of Postcommodity, Raven Chacon, created a score last year for percussive instruments, coins, axe and wood, a police whistle, and a match, called American Ledger №1, which was recently performed by The New Orchestra Workshop (NOW) Society Ensemble at The Agnes Etherington Art Centre in Kingston, Ontario. The substructure for the physical score itself is the American flag, and it is meant to be “displayed as a flag, a wall, a blanket, a billboard or a door.”
American history is too big for any one of us to see clearly. As William Irwin Thompson says, we are like flies crawling across the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel: we cannot see the forces that lie beneath the threshold of our perceptions. But artists, maybe because they are so used to stepping back and reflecting on the world, or because they are poets and sensitive to myth, or just because they have active imaginations and good taste, they are good at seeing big pictures, at channeling nonverbal information, bringing to expression cultural anxieties, traumas, and also sacred ceremonies and medicines.
Which is to say, artists comfort the disturbed, disturb the comfortable, and their creative works give us a better view. Native artworks specifically have a way of capturing, destabilizing, and undermining empires, and of changing the way people think about things. Indigenous artists point out the dominant culture’s blind spots, often by utilizing the ongoing practice of remixing the world.
Art is a window into us, as we are a window into it. I believe we all benefit from engaging with Native American artists and looking deeply into their artworks. Just becoming aware of certain materially and culturally complex physical objects can open the body and mind up to new possible world-spaces, new stories, and new ways of being-in-the-world. As ‘fugitive’ objects with agency, indigenous artworks are active members of every cultural history; windows, or better yet, pathways to the past, while also acting as mirrors to the present, “the possible,” the future.
Deloria, P. (1998) Playing Indian (Yale University Press)
McLaughlin, O. (2017) Native Pop: Bunky Echo-Hawk and Steven Paul Judd Subvert Star Wars (Transmotion)
Mithlo, N. (2009) Our Indian Princess: Subverting the Stereotype (School For Advanced Research)
1st half of this lecture given at Highland Community Colledge:
David Titterington is a painter and art teacher at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas. He earned an MFA from KU in visual art and art education (under the guidance of Norman Akers) and researches the history of body fluids for KU’s gender studies department (under the guidance of Christopher Forth). His undergraduate work was in East Asian Studies and Art History, culminating in a two-week workshop with the Dalai Lama at his monastery in India, and five years living on the island of Shikoku, Japan, researching holy sites and types of Japanese meditation. In 2010 Titterington shifted focus and returned to the US to help raise a family and learn United States history, its sacred sites, tragic sites, and what he calls “Landscape Theology.” He is currently an Artist In Residence at the Stockyard Exchange Building in Kansas City and has participated in residencies, exhibitions, and community projects around the country.