Connection, Contemplation, and Contested Stories in Contemporary Native American and Indigenous Art

LOS ANGELES — The rattling of horses echoes down the long, narrow hallway that leads to the entrance of Various Small Fires. The sound conjures up images of dusty paths, while the rhythm of the horses’ march accentuates your own footsteps, creating an overwhelming feeling of being penned between two walls. At the end of the hall is the gallery’s gravel court, an oversized yellow ball swinging at its center. The ball, while exuberant as it bounces in the wind, also suggests something more serious: a pattern of concentric red, blue and black circles recalls a target or an evil eye. Both the balloon and the sound piece are from the Indigenous art collective Postcommodity. The balloon — originally part of the collective’s 2015 land art installation delineating the US-Mexico border, titled Repellent fence – draws attention to the history of the frontier itself as a product of settler colonialism, reminding viewers of the Indigenous communities that were and continue to be impacted by its policies.

These two pieces create an entry point to approach the rest of the exhibition Serpent whiskey still life and other stories by first acknowledging the literal earth on which the exhibition is staged, and then reminding viewers of all the stories, contested narratives and meanings that the earth holds. This recognition takes on particular resonance when one considers that the exhibition, curated by Todd Bockley of the Bockley Gallery in Minneapolis, brings together an intergenerational group of 11 Native American and Indigenous artists.

Installation view of works by Eric-Paul Riege. From left to right: ‘my god, YE’ii [1]» (2018-21), inkjet print, mixed fiber frame, 53 x 41 x 4 inches; “Let the saint watch over you and me [2](2018-19), mixed media and fiber installation, 36 x 78 x 4 inches; “my god, YE’ii [2]” (2018-21), inkjet print, mixed fiber frame, 53 x 41 x 4 inches (photo by author)

The exhibition addresses the stereotypes, misrepresentations and appropriation of Indigenous cultures, beautifully conveyed through a number of paintings and drawings dealing with mythology – such as the large-scale work “The Nourished” (2019) by Julie Buffalohead – or through a jingle-and-pow -wow-bell sculpture like Brad Kahlhamer’s “Super Catcher” (2021), which uses the shape of the dreamcatcher to merge the formal elements of a modernist Bertoia sound sculpture – esque or Ruth Asawa wire work with a post-punk critique of the commodification of identity.

Interestingly, the exhibit also includes several photographs by artists such as Cara Romero, Tom Jones, and Pao Houa Her, all of whom engage in highly staged takes on documentary-style photography. American Hmong artist Pao Houa Her, whose work “Still Life with Snake Whiskey” is the title of the exhibition, presents a painting-style image of a snake whiskey bottle and a pair of mangoes in a plastic bag under a bouquet of artificial flowers. Although these objects exude a sense of intimacy and domesticity, the careful arrangement and dramatic lighting of the photograph belies any sense of spontaneity. By reinforcing the sense of theater in documentary photography – a genre that has historically been closely tied to the Western lens of “objectivity” documenting the Other – these artists draw attention to the fallacy of objective representation and underscore the shift between the performance of identity and its embodiment.

The absence of a coherent narrative in the exhibition in favor of a more open inquiry reminds us that, like earth, art too is a space of contested meaning – that of commentary, criticism and commodity, of course – but also as a method of contemplation, a material connection to one’s heritage, and as a means of forging a new set of relationships with the world.

Lauren Roche, “Lost Memory” (2021), ink and pigmented acrylic wash on paper, 22 1/2 x 30 inches, 27 x 34 inches framed (photo by Patrick Friedman Schaffer)
Brad Kahlhamer, “Ugh x 4 / 4 x Ugh” (2021), wire, jingles, pow wow bells, 80 x 64 1/2 x 6 inches (photo by author)
Detail of Julie Buffalohead, “The Nourished” (2019), acrylic, graphite and collage on Lokta paper, 52 x 136 inches (photo by Patrick Friedman Schaffer)

Serpent whiskey still life and other stories continues at Various Small Fires (812 North Highland Avenue, Los Angeles, CA) through February 20. The exhibition was curated by Todd Bockley.

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