Identity theft is trouble enough in e-commerce, but imagine your whole culture snatched, abused and clichéd by outsiders.
That’s what some contemporary American Indian artists claim that pop culture is doing to their heritage, and they’re not amused. Their critique of the broader culture rolls out in “Make It Pop,” a sassy, savvy little show of paintings, drawings, sculpture and ornaments on view through May 4 at All My Relations Gallery in south Minneapolis. The most effective criticisms arrive in clever, meticulously executed designs buttressed with smart, informative labels. While the show’s quality is uneven, its high points argue provocatively that these are all talents to watch.
Vegas showgirls have probably always worn feathered plumage, but flaunting a chief’s floor-length feathered bonnet is “In-Appropriate,” as Frank Buffalo Hyde titles his painting of a curvaceous woman sporting the headgear above a leopard-spotted bikini bottom and turquoise jewelry. A pale-skinned bronco buster with war paint streaking his cheeks, and a black dude wearing star-spangled shades and a red-white-and-blue feathered headdress are likewise “In-Appropriate,” as is an “Indian” princess with blond hair and a beaded headband.
As Hyde, a Nez Percé/Onondaga, observes in an accompanying text, such images “do not pay homage to the indigenous people of North America” but are “Red-Face racism that is effortlessly marketed to the masses.” Taking the show’s most uncompromising position, he insists that Indians can only win “this conflict of idea versus ideal … when we own our own image.”
Cannupa Hanska Luger deftly skewers non-natives’ stereotypes of American Indian culture and dress. His ceramic sculptures, shaped like boomboxes, are embellished with fur-wrapped handles, leather toggles and feathered headdresses. One was inspired by an Edward Curtis photo of Sitting Bull that Luger claims was inaccurately posed. Another references the way Hollywood hipster Drew Barrymore affected faux native dress. A third alludes to pop singer Gwen Stefani and her band No Doubt, which he says offended native audiences in 2012 with a video performance as an oversexed “Hollywood Indian.”
In his eloquent commentary, Luger complains that popular media riffle through stereotypical images from native culture as if they were “public domain,” available for unlimited use by anyone. His own sculptures use those signifiers — fur, feathers, fringe — so reverentially that it would be difficult to see the sculptures as critiques were it not for his explanations.
Most of the artists are less ideological. Wisconsin native Jodi Webster merely raises a bemused eyebrow at the cross-cultural stew that is contemporary America. Sympathetic affection suffuses her beautiful drawings of a sweet-faced boy wearing a basketball jersey with leggings, feathered headdress and bandolier bag and a winsome girl in a Hello Kitty T-shirt and native-patterned skirt. Like all Americans, Indian kids, too, have a right to play as they wish and shape their identities as they choose, she seems to suggest.
Far from criticizing multicultural borrowings, Rose B. Simpson produced three handsome constructions in homage to her own heroes — a rapper, an actress and a graphic artist. With a nod to the “good and bad of Indian Gaming, ” jewelry designer Pat Pruitt created a scary looking “Wampum Belt” garnished with stainless steel flowers, casino chips and dice.
Other artists are less ambivalent about the larger culture. Heidi Brandow’s resin-coated collages offer wry commentary on gender stereotypes. Micah Wesley riffs on eagles as a national symbol. Doug Miles — the impresario behind Apache Skateboards — adapts graffiti and manga cartoon styles for a tribute to tough women. Lisa Holt and Harlan Reano collaborate on traditional pottery enlivened with modern figurative motifs. Jason Garcia offers a sweet ceramic tile hand-painted with a girl daydreaming of Starbucks coffee.
While pieces that lambaste the tacky, sexualized vulgarity of popular culture are the most thought-provoking, the quieter art also successfully injects a native viewpoint into the Pop stream of contemporary American life.