The Fourth of July, American Independence Day, doesn’t hold much relevance in Australia, but the fact that it’s today does at least allow me an excuse to focus on art from the Americas! Specifically the work of some of my favourite contemporary Native American artists, and the incredible breadth of their collective art practice.
Here’s my top six!
Wendy Red Star
Born in Montana, Wendy Red Star is mixed Irish/Crow Indian, and her art exists at the crossroads of those two cultures. Now based in Oregon, Red Star uses bright festive colours and absurd props, like the inflatable deer below, to lighten the effect of her work without detracting from the seriousness of the intent behind it. Her work is full of humour and life, but anchored very deeply in the history of her people and the issues they continue to face. Kind of like a pinata at a funeral – it’s there to enjoy, but don’t lose sight of what’s going on in the background.
Raised in and around the Pueblo culture, Mateo Romero has been making art from very early. Raised in an actively artistic environment, Romero comes from a family of artisans, including his father and paternal grandmother, who are a painter and traditional ceramicist respectively, and his brother Diego Romero who now also works as a ceramic artist. Formally trained in printmaking, Romero’s art practise incorporates elements of printed text and historical photos overlaid with paint, asphalt and ink to create contemporary snapshots of Native American life. He blends the figurative aspects of photography with the movement and fluidity of abstract expressionist painting to create works that pulsate with colour and energy, but are firmly ground in the historical events of early American settlement.
Roxanne Swentzell, born into a family with a long pedigree of renowned sculptors and ceramic artists, made her first significant piece of art at the age of four. Having been recognised early for her exceptional talent, Swentzell spent two years studying at the Institute of American Indian Art before even finishing high school, after which she continued formal art training at the Portland Museum Art School.
Swentzell’s figures, cast in either clay or bronze, are quirky and humorous but also possess an expressiveness that is deeply human. Her characters, all with serious dark eyes, are engaged in a wonderous and slightly naive exploration of their surroundings. I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that as a little girl Swentzell struggled to communicate due to a severe speech impediment. Her work, cast mainly in clay and bronze, takes me immediately to some of my earliest memories of the world, trying to make sense of what was happening around me, the frustration at never feeling in control, and the determination we develop as children to have our voices heard.
Entirely self taught, Robert Freeman has been painting for over five decades. Born on the Rincon Indian Reserve in 1939, Freeman was raised in a poor family with little exposure to the arts, on record as saying that he wasn’t even sure what an artist was until he saw a movie on Vincent Van Gogh’s life. Making his way through high school with the assistance of football scholarships, Freeman finished his education and joined the army. Sent to Korea as part of the infantry, he spent his free time sketching portraits for his army buddies of their girlfriends back home, taken from the snapshots they passed around. Having decided he wanted to be an artist, he practiced his technique as often as he was able, and after leaving the army joined a local library so that he could research art history, discovering the work of Rufino Tamayo, Fletcher Martin, Norman Rockwell and Pablo Picasso.
Developing an art style that incorporates surrealism and traditional American Indian motifs, Freeman began selling a few artworks at fairs and artisan markets, before gaining the confidence to enter his first art show. He has since won over 200 awards, and is considered a major name in Native American art. Now living in San Marcos, he still occasionally paints in the studio he built himself in Rincon.
Now based in Brooklyn, Jeffrey Gibson is a Choctaw-Cherokee painter and sculptor originally from Colorado. As a child he travelled overseas with his family, living for a time in Germany and South Korea. This early exposure to a unique mix of cultures continues to inform his art practice, which he sees as a process of drawing together the seemingly vast differences between Western and non-Western worlds. Drawing inspiration from various dance cultures throughout the world, including tribal dance, the rave scene, and 60s Go-Go dancers, Gibson repurposes objects such as punching bags, bells, animal hides, musical instruments…the list of materials he uses is endless. The result is work that energises and uplifts, providing a contemporary context for ancient questions about spirituality, culture and what it means to be different.
Jeffrey Gibson is one of my favourite contemporary artists, regardless of his cultural heritage.
Rick Bartow, a member of the Wiyot tribe in northern California, is another self-taught artist. Raised by a waitress mother and a fisherman father, Bartow never considered art as a serious employment option. Initially working as a bartender himself, then as a teachers’ aide with handicapped children, Bartow eventually joined the army and was sent to Vietnam. Upon his return home, the now seriously war-damaged Bartow turned to art to exorcise the demons he carried with him from his tour of duty. His first solo show after Vietnam was understandably stark, with black and white imagery and heavy subject matter. In the years since though, his work has morphed into a lovely balance of ancient spirituality and mysticism, and contemporary themes and colour palates.