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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

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 to environmental damage and pollution brought about by a European, capitalist culture that lacks a respect for nature and Indigenous homelands; or the rings may be a reference to problems with alcoholism present in some American Indian communities. Either way Six-Pack Colonialism is a work that’s openly critical and thought-provoking, yet as engaging as any of Buffalohead’s most personal works. It shows a promising expansion for the artist in subject matter, skill, and imagination.

If you’re up at the Denver Art Museum, Eyes On: Julie Buffalohead is certainly worth checking out. Buffalohead’s works are intensely personal, yet widely appealing. She’s an artist to watch and Eyes On is a perfect introduction to her work.

Closer to home, the El Pueblo History Museum is hosting an exhibit of Indigenous and Hispanic art titled Without Borders: Art Sín Fronteras. The exhibit is organized in collaboration with the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area in Santa Fe, with work by artists from New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Texas.

One of the more intriguing pieces in the show is a video by Cannupa Hanska Luger, “How to Build a Mirror Shield for Standing Rock Water Protestors.” The video resembles a how-to YouTube video because that’s exactly what it is.

Luger, who grew up in the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, created a cheap and easy way for people to make reflective shields that give riot police their own images back to them. Hundreds of shields were made, possibly even thousands, and have since been repurposed for other protests. “I keep seeing them here and there,” Luger told the LA Times in 2017.

Another video worth watching is a short documentary by National Geographic Explorer Jason Jaacks on the Tohono O’odham Tribe, whose tribal lands bridge the Mexican and US border. Even though theoretically the people and lands of the Tohono O’odham Tribe are an independent nation, they often face threats and harassment from ICE agents as they travel the reservation, especially since many never receive a birth certificate or documentation proving US citizenship. Jaacks’ documentary highlights the effect of the border on the Tribe and how political borders and cultural communities don’t necessarily go hand in hand.

Erin Currier’s Fiesta Queens is a piece along the same lines, capturing the mix of Indigenous, European, and Hispanic traditions in many communities across the Southwest. Viewers will likely spot labels for common southwest products integrated into the painting, a signature of Currier’s work. She travels the world collecting trash as a way to capture peoples and cultures, transforming what’s been thrown away into something beautiful. She calls herself a humanist artist because she wants her work to show how all people share a common humanity, regardless of the countries or cultures they come from.

 

A few other artists of note at the El Pueblo Museum include Cara Romero, whose fine art photographs are pointed and often theatrical critiques of how American Indians are portrayed in pop culture; Jeff Slim, a member of the Diné Nation who creates large, colorful, mural-like pieces exploring metaphysical and spiritual subject matter; and Diego Romero, a ceramicist known for combining Ancestral Pueblo tradition and Mimbres ceramic techniques with Greek vase painting and pop culture. His piece, The Rape of Gaia, like Julie Buffalohead’s Six-Pack Colonialism, draws a connection between European settlement and environmental desecration.

These Indigenous and Hispanic artists are creating pointed social and political artwork that’s unafraid to make a statement about society, government, culture, or themselves. Though their pieces are crafted through the lens of their cultures and experiences, the messages are universal and hugely relevant in our current climate.

Eyes On: Julie Buffalohead will be on view at the Denver Art Museum through February 3rd, 2019. For more information visit denverartmuseum.org.

Without Borders: Art Sín Fronteras, will be open at the El Pueblo History Museum until February 28th, 2019. For more information visit www.elpueblohistorymuseum.org.