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Two Colorado exhibits challenge the way we think about Indigenous Peoples, the environment, and the west

Julie Buffalohead (Ponca), A Little Medicine and Magic, 2018. Oil on canvas; 52x72in. Courtesy of Julie Buffalohead and Bockley Gallery. Image courtesy of Julie Buffalohead and Bockley Gallery
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Contemporary art is one of the strongest platforms for American Indian Peoples to share their experiences and stories. Currently there are two art exhibits worth catching that offer glimpses into the Indigenous experience and are by turns intriguing, challenging, and thought-provoking.

One of these shows is Eyes On: Julie Buffalohead at the Denver Art Museum, part of a larger exhibit titled Stampede: Animals in Art. A member of the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma, Buffalohead is known for creating charmingly subversive pieces inspired by American Indian myths and stories, populated by animal characters who act like humans.

A perfect example of Buffalohead’s characteristic style is A Little Medicine and Magic, a diptych with a stylish heel- and dress-clad coyote on the right and a tower of skunks playing with what are presumably the coyote’s purse and lipstick on the left. The skunks represent the medicine clan, one of the eight Ponca clans. The coyote, meanwhile, is a trickster character Buffalohead typically uses to represent herself in her artwork.

At first glance, A Little Medicine and Magic is a playful image where skunks run amok and give the tricky coyote a taste of its own “medicine” by stealing its purse. But if you look closer, the painting is also a sharp and clever interrogation of gender roles. The skunks are adorned with red stars, a reference to a Ponca tradition where male warriors could “reward” one woman from the tribe by picking her to be tattooed with star-shaped marks that honored the men’s war deeds. Given that, one wonders if the skunks really absconded with the coyote’s purse and lipstick, or if instead they’re offering them the coyote and she’s refusing. Are the trappings of masculinity and femininity something we choose for ourselves or that’s chosen for us?

That combination of mischief and serious inquiry is a common element in Buffalohead’s work. You can also see it in Straight Legs, another diptych where a coyote reclines seductively on a red-sheeted bed as if waiting for a lover, while a deer approaches from the right. Between the two, other animals peer out at the viewer: a hawk, owl, turkey, and several ravens.

The painting possesses incredible narrative tension because it’s impossible to know if the situation is dangerous or comic. Is the deer being led into a trap or a harmless practical joke? Is the coyote going to commit the awful taboo of eating the deer, or set it free?

Contemporary art is one of the strongest platforms for American Indian Peoples to share their experiences and stories. Currently, there are two art exhibits worth catching that offer glimpses into the Indigenous experience and are by turns intriguing, challenging, and thought-provoking.
One of these shows is Eyes On: Julie Buffalohead at the Denver Art Museum, part of a larger exhibit titled Stampede: Animals in Art. A member of the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma, Buffalohead is known for creating charmingly subversive pieces inspired by American Indian myths and stories, populated by animal characters who act like humans.
A perfect example of Buffalohead’s characteristic style is A Little Medicine and Magic, a diptych with a stylish heel- and dress-clad coyote on the right and a tower of skunks playing with what are presumably the coyote’s purse and lipstick on the left. The skunks represent the medicine clan, one of the eight Ponca clans. The coyote, meanwhile, is a trickster character Buffalohead typically uses to represent herself in her artwork.
At first glance, A Little Medicine and Magic is a playful image where skunks run amok and give the tricky coyote a taste of its own “medicine” by stealing its purse. But if you look closer, the painting is also a sharp and clever interrogation of gender roles. The skunks are adorned with red stars, a reference to a Ponca tradition where male warriors could “reward” one woman from the tribe by picking her to be tattooed with star-shaped marks that honored the men’s war deeds. Given that, one wonders if the skunks really absconded with the coyote’s purse and lipstick, or if instead they’re offering them the coyote and she’s refusing. Are the trappings of masculinity and femininity something we choose for ourselves or that’s chosen for us?
That combination of mischief and serious inquiry is a common element in Buffalohead’s work. You can also see it in Straight Legs, another diptych where a coyote reclines seductively on a red-sheeted bed as if waiting for a lover, while a deer approaches from the right. Between the two, other animals peer out at the viewer: a hawk, owl, turkey, and several ravens.
The painting possesses incredible narrative tension because it’s impossible to know if the situation is dangerous or comic. Is the deer being led into a trap or a harmless practical joke? Is the coyote going to commit the awful taboo of eating the deer, or set it free?
Straight Legs is also representative of different sides of Buffalohead herself: on one side is the deer, symbol of the Straight Leg clan of which Buffalohead is a member from her father’s side; and on the other side next to the coyote is a hawk, which symbolizes Buffalohead’s grandmother’s clan. Are the two sides of Buffalohead’s identity coming together in this piece, or are they meant to remain forever in conversation with one another but separate? As usual with Buffalohead’s work, viewers are free to fill in the story and interpret the piece as they see fit.
Earlier in her career, Buffalohead stopped making overtly political artwork, saying in a 2011 interview, “I felt I had exhausted my reflections on the politics and it was time to move on. I deliberately refocused my attention back on myself and my personal experiences.” Yet in this new series of artworks at the DAM, there are several pieces with obvious political overtones.
The best of these more political pieces is arguably Six-Pack Colonialism, because it retains Buffalohead’s signature sense of charm while presenting a charged and pointed message. On the left, an owl takes a flyswatter to three tiny Spanish galleons tangled in a six-pack ring, while a rabbit defiantly sticks out its tongue. On the right, a woozy-looking deer lies down while an owl picks at a mangled six-pack ring and galleon. The fate of the deer is uncertain, especially since the six-pack ring on its back ominously resembles a skull.
The six-pack rings may refer t…
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