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?