Feathers, fringe and found objects mix with “Star Wars” helmets, jumpsuits and swords in the basement of the Minneapolis American Indian Center, which has been transformed into an elaborate workshop.
It’s all part of a big Indigenous Peoples Day celebration Saturday that is the brainchild of Minneapolis artist and self-declared “Star Wars” geek Rory Wakemup. Costumed characters such as Darth Chief the Mascot Hunter — featuring a Darth Vader mask, up-cycled with glass feathers and neon — will engage in a dance battle reflecting Wakemup’s wild imagination and penchant for community-building.
“There’ll be all sorts of chaos — as much chaos that I can create with 20 people,” he says with a grin.
Wakemup developed his mashed-up “alter egos” during graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin in Madison as a statement about the appropriation of Native American imagery by sports teams.
After moving back to Minneapolis a year ago, he took over as director of All My Relations, a gallery near the center that specializes in contemporary native art.
A former model in his late 30s with a mischievous streak, Wakemup is full of ideas about how to integrate art with the historically large American Indian population in the surrounding Phillips neighborhood.
For the past few months, he has been throwing “art parties” in the center’s basement, bringing in catered food while youths and volunteers stitch, staple and glue the elaborate costumes, created for performers from as young as 7 to adults.
It helps that he has a deep history in Phillips.
Wakemup remembers his years at Andersen Elementary School as challenging. His mom took him out of school after he was suspended one too many times, often for fighting.
“Everyone I knew came from a place where if someone threw the first punch, you finish it,” he said. “You don’t tell, you finish it right there.”
He transferred to an alternative school called Second Foundation, but came to view it as a day care center. “I just wanted something better,” he said, so he persuaded his mom to let him back into traditional school. First, though, she made him read “My Side of the Mountain,” a book about a city boy who learns to live off the land.
It was a turning point: “It may have been the first time I read more than 10 pages in my life.”
He went to Ramsey Junior High, where he excelled in sports. But after several incidents of violence in their neighborhood, the family moved to Redwood Falls, Minn., near the Lower Sioux Reservation. (Wakemup himself is enrolled in the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe.)
He found solace in reservation life. “The rez is my escape from apocalypse or homelessness,” he says.
Art as a driving force
After high school, he headed to Phoenix to study at the Institute of American Indian Arts, but returned for a time to work with youths at the Minneapolis American Indian Center.
There, he realized how art could inspire kids and bring a community together.
“The only way you’re going to stay out of trouble is if there’s fun things to do,” he says.
R. Vincent Moniz, a poet who will perform in Saturday’s event, remembers how Wakemup’s apartment was filled with elaborate wearables, all crafted from found materials.
“That was the first time I saw the mind of Rory,” says Moniz. “The rings he had made were all huge. I always imagine it like ‘The Lord of the Rings’ — superheavy and impractical, but beautiful, just like he pulled it out of a mountain.”
He was also impressed by Wakemup’s ability to roll with it when things didn’t go as planned. One day, Wakemup drove up in a rusted brown Firebird for a trip to northern Minnesota. The car’s alternator wasn’t working, so he’d hooked a charger to the battery.
“Every once in a while we would have to pull over to make sure it wasn’t about to explode,” Moniz says. “Something in his mind just gets it done. He’s the most adaptable Indian on Earth.”
Fertile ground on Franklin
When he’s not busy with his art, Wakemup is stepping into his new role as director of All My Relations gallery, which is overseen by the Native American Community Development Institute.
“He’s full of ideas of how to engage the community,” says NACDI’s new president, former Minneapolis City Council Member Robert Lilligren.
His organization opened the gallery on Franklin Avenue in 2011 as a successor to Ancient Traders Gallery, which from 1999 to 2010 was the Twin Cities’ leading showcase of American Indian art. Lilligren calls it “a sacred space. There’s a caliber and quality to maintain, while also figuring out how to engage our traditional artists and community people.”
For its next exhibit, “On Fertile Ground,” Wakemup is recruiting artists to create sculptural seed boxes that will be planted this winter, then deteriorate by spring. “I want to have these ephemeral sculpture gardens that will literally become gardens with plants that leach toxins from the soils,” he said.
When he started, Lilligren asked him to choose a mentor. Wakemup chose Joan Vorderbruggen, who runs the Hennepin Theatre Trust’s Made Here Program. He is an artist-in-residence for the program, which aims to strengthen Hennepin Avenue through public art and storefront displays.
A version of his final MFA solo exhibition, “Kill the Idiot, Save the Fan” — playing off an 1890s slogan by the founder of the infamous Carlisle Indian School (“Kill the Indian, save the man”) — is displayed in a storefront at 7th and Hennepin. That same space will eventually exhibit the “Smart Wars” costumes from Saturday’s powwow and a video about the project.
Vorderbruggen notes that she and Wakemup have similar problems to solve. Like downtown Minneapolis, Franklin Avenue has many vacant storefronts, along with problems stemming from homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, and mental illness. In 2011, NACDI launched its own “American Indian Cultural Corridor” initiative to bring new vitality to Franklin.
Wakemup is “a natural connector,” she said. “He has that kind of magnetic enthusiasm about his work and the community he wishes to serve.”
Sheila Regan is a Twin Cities arts journalist.