Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Resistance Art -- The Art of Resistance (or "Why don't you put a feather on it?")

Yesterday, I spent a good deal of time at the Museum of Contemporary Native Art in Santa Fe, a project/program of the Institute of Native American Arts -- where Ms Ché is now a student.

The whole place has a fresh-new feel and the art on exhibit is much edgier than that of the recent past or even longer ago (I can't recall offhand when I first visited the museum, but it's been years and years). Candice Hopkins is the new curator, and I'm sure it is her vision more than any other that has guided the re-vision of the exhibits at MoCNA, and that vision is one of continual resistance by Native people and particularly Native artists against the impositions of stereotypes and expectations.

Consequently, there is much resistance art on view. I wish I could illustrate this post with images from the exhibitions, but as a rule, MoCNA does not post many pictures of what's on exhibit, indeed, sometimes there are none at all.

What is "resistance art?" I supposed it depends to a certain extent on one's own perceptions of resistance. In order to arrive at a realistic definition, we may ask: "What or whom is being resisted, by what or by whom, and to what object -- if there is one?"

Many artistic forms and expressions can fall into the resistance category, even when the artist is not consciously trying to create resistance art. Among the most commonly recognized forms of resistance art is the poster highlighting a particular issue, rebellion or campaign. One of my all time favorites is "Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge" (El Lissitsky, 1919), propaganda art produced to help inspire the struggle against the White Russians in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (El Lissisky, USSR, 1919)

The poster, while intended as a populist statement regarding the civil war then under way in the nascent Soviet Union, is in fact constructivist fine art, one of the strongest examples of the genre. Very often, posters and other forms of resistance art are both populist statements and fine art simultaneously. There's no real dividing line between them. There is no way I know of to separate the fine artist from the populist rabble rouser and propagandist. When the cause is strong or just, the works emerge almost spontaneously from many sources, including the studios of fine artists.

In the case of the exhibits at the Museum of Contemporary Native Art, many of the pieces of resistance art are the works of honors students at IAIA or of alumnae of the Institute. Some of it is straightforward and in-your-face, some is subtly subversive. The point of much of it is the rejection of stereotypes of what "Indian art" is supposed to be as well as challenging expectations of who qualifies as an "Indian artist."  These seem to be constant themes within the fairly small Indian arts community, especially in Santa Fe and New Mexico in general where Indian art and artists have a very prominent position and role in the highly competitive art market.

On the other hand, much of the resistance art on exhibit at MoCNA deals with specific issues in the ongoing Native struggles for dignity and justice in the context of constant predation and expropriation by the dominant culture, whether it's war, poverty, abuse, abandonment, dispossession or what have you.

Indian artists fight stereotypes, and they also fight for what's right.

David Bradley, for example, has produced an enormous body of resistance (fine) art that mocks and disparages, indeed insults, the "Disneyfication" of Santa Fe in particular, the Southwest in general, as it molds and shapes everything to attract and please the tourists who flock to the region every spring and summer -- and the poseurs who settle in for the long term. Bradley currently has a major exhibit at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe. Resistance art that he did early on, collages of various "Indian" ideas and struggles, are on display at the MoCNA.

And example of one of his statements of resistance is his Land o' Fakes Museum Currency:

Virgil Ortiz has been creating subversive images of his re-visioning of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 -- translated into contemporary iconography -- for years. His vision is encompassing. He uses every bit of his talent, skill, connections and imagination to create what is becoming an enormous body of resistance art that focuses almost entirely on the most successful Indian resistance action in North American history.

Why would he do this? Isn't it just "style," "fashion," or "entertainment?"

I say no, not at all. Virgil uses the elements of the high-style and fashion world he once served in the Donna Karan studio in order to highlight something that's often forgotten about Indian history -- the Pueblo Revolt -- and to send a clear message to his high and mighty clients that it can come again.

In effect, he becomes a translator, an interpreter of the Revolt, both for the benefit of young Indians who might not otherwise find the events of so long ago interesting or relevant, and for the education of a clientele that instinctively believes they are the Masters of the Universe.

Virgil left New York and the high-fashion industry he'd been eagerly accepted into in order to return to Cochiti Pueblo where he was from -- something that was in and of itself an act of resistance and rebellion -- where he develops his re-vision and the themes of revolt and rebellion based on what happened to chastise and drive the Spanish out of New Mexico in 1680. An aspect of that re-vision was the Venutian Soldiers concept of 2012, which was -- I think -- the first gallery exhibit we attended after moving to New Mexico in 2012.

Venutian Soldiers c. 2012, Virgil Ortiz
Now wait. Surely this is not resistance art, it's some kind of wild-ass fashion statement, right? Actually, it's both. The "soldiers" depicted are the soldiers of a Pueblo Revolt of 2180, futuristic images of what may be to come based on what went before.

Virgil now has a major exhibit at the Denver Art Museum

Through similar images -- in ceramics, leather and fabric, paint, video and film, and whatever other materials and means Virgil decides to use -- a picture emerges of his vision that ought to give some of his expensive clients pause. I'm not sure it does because I still see some of them parading around Santa Fe in the Virgil Ortiz creations, many of which are the figurative equivalent of daggers and arrows to the hearts of those who wear them. It's all highly subversive but in a way that -- perhaps -- his targets can't understand at all, any more than the Spanish were able to comprehend what Po'pay and the other Pueblo rebels were up to in advance of the Revolt itself. They thought they knew... but they were wrong...

At the IAIA Scholarship Dinner Virgil and Rose B(ean) Simpson, presented a collaborative performance piece that took these resistance concepts several steps further, but I'm convinced most of those who saw it had no idea what they were seeing. To them, perhaps, it was something charming, even cute. But to others, it was as strong a statement of resistance to the status quo as had ever been presented in that context.

At the Museum of Contemporary Native Art, Rose and Virgil have extended their collaborative efforts with an installation of even more elements of the re-visioning and translation of the Pueblo Revolt theme. There are manikins wearing costumes Virgil created for his characters and also, importantly, ceramic "masks" for each of eight named characters in the  story of the Revolt (c. 2180). I put masks in quotes because they are more like three-dimensional head-shots rather than face coverings, though they are called masks in the exhibit. To me they are quite disturbing -- which is, I think, what they are supposed to be -- because they do not depict humans. They are from another realm altogether, and I'm not at all sure they are benign.... they wouldn't be, would they, if they were representations of the forces of a future Revolt.

But then, most of what's in the Redness exhibit is disturbing. Deliberately so. Resistance art? Absolutely.

Carmen Selam is a young artist whose work I was able to purchase at last year's IAIA open house. The piece I bought was a print called "Indian Red":

"Indian Red", Carmen Selam, 2014
I was immediately attracted to it because it is a piece of resistance art that comments on the mis-appropriation of "Indian-ness" for commerce and (Anglo) 'beauty.' Carmen has written very well about it on her website:
Throughout my indigenous life, I have lived with elements of racism over the duration of my existence. The misappropriated usage of Native American imagery can be seen as a metaphorical modern day scalping. There was once a time when gathering pigment for the earth was a long and arduous task. This pigment, carefully selected was used to make paint that we used in ceremony and on the war field. We gathered the elements from the earth that my ancestors were buried. It was honorable to wear paint, eagle feathers, amongst other things. However, these days, it is not the same. The scapegoat for blunt racism is often disguised by the cloak of one word: honor. Often times we are dishonored in the name of honor by non-natives appropriating our sacred motifs and regalia as Halloween costumes, sports logos, and corporate emblems. My piece Indian Red is a reflection of the idea that the pigment and color of our skin is seen as a commodity by the red-lipped, twenty-something, non-native hipsters, who don the plastic war bonnet and faux war-paint.
Resistance art? Of course. What else could it be?

There are many other Native artists whose work is on exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts and elsewhere in galleries and museums around the country and particularly the Southwest, much of it resistance art -- but some of it not.

There's a joke that goes around in the Indian arts community: "Oh, yer stuff ain't sellin'? Why don't you put a feather on it? That's what they like to see, you know?"


That's what they like to see. They don't -- usually -- want their Indian stuff to bite, if you know what I mean. But what I've been seeing more and more of, encouragingly, is Indian resistance art flourishing in galleries and museums, where some of the wealthy and powerful might see it. Whether they understand it or not is another question. But it really doesn't matter.

What matters is that artists are once again rebelling and resisting the pressure to conform to stereotypes and expectations. Artist rebellions typically presage popular rebellion, and I think we're getting closer every day.

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