Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. “I don’t see any wine,” she remarked.
“There isn’t any,” said the March Hare.
“Then it wasn’t very civil of you to offer it,” said Alice angrily.
“It wasn’t very civil of you to sit down without being invited,” said the March Hare.
“I didn’t know it was YOUR table,” said Alice; “it’s laid for a great many more than three.”
“Your hair wants cutting,” said the Hatter. He had been looking at Alice for some time with great curiosity, and this was his first speech.
“You should learn not to make personal remarks,” Alice said with some severity; “it’s very rude.”
The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he SAID was, “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”
–Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)
Taking tea is usually seen as the height of civilized behavior, with myriad rules and customs that join people together in the act of drinking a simple beverage. Children’s tea parties teach them how to sit still, be polite, and make small talk—yet what should be a bastion of rationality is often full of irrational behavior such as talking to imaginary friends and pretending water is tea. Lewis Carroll tapped into this idea in one of the most famous scenes from his book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “A Mad Tea Party.” Similarly, in her series of Tea Party paintings, Native American artist Julie Buffalohead uses tea parties featuring animals and people in masks to charm and intrigue her audience while questioning preconceived notions of what is polite and what is right.
It’s appropriate to begin a discussion of the Tea Party paintings with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland because Buffalohead is an artist known for creating paintings that look like they are from a storybook, full of quirky animals, toys, and fairy tale characters. Yet, also like Carroll’s novels, her works speak more directly to adults because of their subversive sense of humor. If Buffalohead’s work does illustrate a fairy tale, it’s of a fractured variety, a childhood observed with an adult’s jaded eye.
When one looks at Buffalohead’s paintings over time, familiar characters appear, populating what feels like an unwritten storybook. The coyote reappears consistently–either playful, dressed and contained in human clothes, or as a mask on a dark-haired woman. According to Buffalohead, the coyote or masked woman is a self-portrait and a reference to the trickster Nanobozho, who is neither good nor evil, but generally acts in his or her own self-interest—much like a human. As in many Native American myths, Buffalohead’s Tea Party series visualized a story about the struggle between wildness and civilization. The self-contained, masked woman feeding a teddy bear in Day One gives way to a nearly complete disregard of civilization in Day Two, with animals taking tea in the woods. Finally, in Day Three, we see the woman merged with the playful coyote and back to serving the teddy bear.
Buffalohead has been open about the fact that her work is very experiential, and that the Tea Party series in particular was inspired by her pregnancy. “My imagery is so personal it’s hard to think about the viewer,” she said in an interview with this author. But Buffalohead’s personal imagery also speaks to universal experiences, maybe because it is so personal. The Tea Party series specifically draws on steretyped toys and play that reinforce society roles and expectations: that girls will want to be princesses and boys will want to play with trucks, or cowboys versus Indians. In Buffalohead’s hands, these toys and games can tell the story of a marginalized people across centuries, continents, and cultures.
In Tea Party Day Two, one feels as if one has stumbled across a tea with characters from another world, just like Alice. A rabbit with a pink umbrella and an owl sit at a stainless steel table set in the middle of a snow-covered clearing of trees, while Coyote pours tea. All three of these animals feature prominently in American Indian myth: the owl is known for its wisdom and has a dual nature that can forecast good news or death, and brings disease or power to the people who see it. Rabbit is even even more prevalent in North American mythology, though typically violent, killing people or other animals for his own gain as in the Ute myth of Little Rabbit. Finally, there is Coyote, arguably the most universal figure in Native North American myth. Coyote is the prototypical trickster, magically powerful and always shifting between hero and troublemaker, whom Buffalohead has used to represent herself in the past.
In Tea Party Day One, a woman masked as a coyote feeds a stuffed bear. This feeding of imaginary friends is characteristic of the type of pretend typical in tea parties in literature. For example, in Mary Poppins, the children take tea with Mary and her uncle, Mr. Wiggs, whose jolly laughter lifts them into the air. The tea party allows the characters to subvert reality, imagining that they’re free of the rules of society and physics. On one hand tea offers comfort, on another hand a suspension of disbelief.
Tea Party Day One also features a coyote, this time in a black mask rolling on the floor in front of a red cloth-draped tea table. According to Buffalohead, the coyote is not a submissive character, but is frolicking and participating in “a game of disguise.” The coyote is apparently playing this game with the woman, who is wearing a coyote mask. The mirrored quality of the characters–a coyote wearing a human mask and a woman wearing a coyote mask–is also indicative of a dual nature, much like a superhero. The coyote’s mask reminds one of Zorro, who himself has numerous dualities: Diego and his alter ego Zorro; he and his “milk-brother,” Bernardo; and Zorro and his rival Jean Lafitte. Of course, Diego himself descends from a dual heritage of Indian and Spanish, similar to Buffalohead’s own bi-racial background.
Tea parties have a dual nature, as well. Whereas on one hand they allow people to subvert rules and social norms, on the other hand they’re symbols of British colonialism and Victorian conservatism, particularly in America. When the tradition of afternoon tea first began, England was the only country in Europe where coffee wasn’t a typical drink. English tea symbolized not only the British Empire but the long-reaching politics, society, and military that kept it in place. In point of fact, tea wasn’t just a symbol of Britain, but a key element in its continued influence, as it was duties on tea and the shipping network used to import it that kept the empire from collapsing both during and after the Napoleonic Wars. When colonialists threw tea into the harbor during the Boston Tea Party, therefore, they were rejecting not only taxation but British empirialism and an ordered society.
Tea Party Day Three is the probably where this confrontation between order and chaos is most obvious in Buffalohead’s Tea Party works. Coyote, dressed in a pink tutu and fuzzy red scarf, pours tea for a white stuffed teddy bear from a sturdy white teapot. In the foreground, what appears to be a stuffed white rabbit lies splayed out like a chalk outline at a crime scene, while a unicorn stares beadily at us from the rabbit’s side. Is the rabbit dead? Did the unicorn kill it? Or is it merely playing dead? The table is set with four cups, suggesting that the unicorn and rabbit are taking tea with Coyote and the bear, but there’s only a seat for one. Like the masked coyote in Tea Party Day One, the rabbit in Tea Party Day Three has a mirror character, the stuffed bear. They’re both white, with similar faces and black belly buttons. But whereas the teddy bear is large and lively, the rabbit is small and looks discarded. It appears civilation has triumphed over the pugnacious Rabbit.
In all of Buffalohead’s Tea Party paintings, there is a tension between society and nature that reflects the subversion of proper behavoir, as typically found in stories such as Mary Poppins, Alice in Wonderland, and many Native American myths. Because tea parties are pretend, they are the perfect social event where uncanny and disruptive events can take place. Literature has frequently drawn from this, and now Buffalohead has as well. But in a world where we no longer cling to the constructs of Victorian society, does it matter? The answer is yes: we need fantasy and disruption now more than ever; for without it, unlike Alice, we might never grow beyond what is expect to reach our full potential.