Coyotes and foxes and hares — oh my! St. Paul-based artist Julie Buffalohead creates human-like animal characters with ease, part homage to her American Indian background and part commentary on her own creative process and the world around her.
In a self-titled solo exhibition at Bockley Gallery in Minneapolis, Buffalohead continues her lightly narrative work, which offers open-ended stories that invite viewers to stay and stare for a while.
"The Garden" (2017) is clearly a commentary on this spring's controversy at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. A young woman crouches on the ground while a hare, standing on a ghostly white outline of the "Scaffold" structure, offers her the cherry on a spoon. Another hare sits with a broken noose around its neck. The "LOVE" sculpture lurks in the background as a coyote grips the blue rooster in its teeth, as if ready to scamper away.
In "Pity Party," several animals mill about an empty table setting, while in "Untitled," a crow with a unicorn mask over its head wanders toward a fox gently examining a black crow that appears to be dead. In each of these scenarios, the viewer must imagine what led to this moment.
With a background in figurative painting, Buffalohead now works exclusively on Lokta paper, a thick, handmade paper imported from Nepal that's made from the inner bark of high-altitude evergreen shrubs. Buffalohead started using the paper when she was pregnant because she had to only use natural materials, meaning she couldn't use oil paints or work on canvas.
Buffalohead and I caught up via phone on a particularly cold Minnesota afternoon.
Q: What's the significance of the different animals that you use in your artwork?
A: I use a lot of trickster figures like coyotes and rabbits. They're prevalent in Native American stories. Trickster characters often have these traits, whether they're greedy, gluttonous or misbehaving — they do naughty things, and represent all these human characteristics. At the same time they are prevalent in a lot of creation stories. So, they create the world. They make mayhem and mischief but at the same time they're doing really good things.
I've always been attracted to them because they represent to Native people what it really means to be human. It's not just black and white — you're many things. You're all things. I use a lot of characters that are in my tribal stories, adding in a little bit of chaos, a sort of homage to my Native upbringing. (She's an enrolled member of the Ponca tribe, in what is now Oklahoma.)
Q: You use specific patterning in some pieces — in one, I noticed that the deer has a little blanket with this design from your tribe. What's the significance of it?
A: It's this style called appliqué. In old times, Native people were given pieces of fabric or ribbons by French and English traders. They would lay cut-out pieces of fabric on top of each other, in opposite colors. It was really popular amongst tribes like the Menomonee, the Ho-Chunk in Wisconsin and around Lake Erie. It traveled to my tribe. Sometimes they call it ribbon work.
It's more of a floral work — the patterns represent plants and things like that. I found some old patterns and I was really interested in the layering and collage of it. So I started taking this scrap paper I had lying around and putting it into my drawings.
Q: Two pieces in the show reference recent events — the "Scaffold" takedown at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, and the pipeline protests at Standing Rock Reservation. What was your response to the news of Walker Art Center executive director Olga Viso resigning?
A: People continually make mistakes about issues regarding Native Americans. I wasn't interested in Olga being fired or stepping down or anything like that, I was just doing a piece that is more about all institutions, not just the Walker. It's kind of astonishing how Native people aren't represented on their boards or included in decisions.
I feel like these things happen all the time to Native people in different ways. We were the first people here, but we still get our history distorted. I just wanted to make a piece that spoke to [the fact] that this happened. It probably won't happen again, but I hope Native people have more of a voice in all of these things — not just the perspective of the colonizer.