Editor’s note: below is the final installment of a three-part series by Rachel “Io” Waters about contemporary native art and culture. The first two blog posts in this series, and the intro post, can be found here, here and here.
Image from Virgil Ortiz’ Venutian Soldiers series
There is this notion of Native American art that permeates the collective psyche. Often the mental images evoked are those of pastel landscapes with painted horses galloping along sandstone cliffs or of noble maidens snuggling with wolves, created by artists whose only contact with native culure appears to come from Harlequin covers. It’s the type of art best reserved for the walls of Best Western hotels and 24 karat gold-rimmed collector’s plates. Pleasant. Bland.
Enter Virgil Ortiz, a painter, fashion designer, stylist and ceramicist from Cochiti Pueblo whose work challenges every notion of how native art should look. At once traditional and futuristic, whimsical and post-apocalyptic, Ortiz’s art transcends classification altogether.
From 2010’s Contortionista series which melds 19th Century Pueblo Munos figures with the sensual lines of modern Cirque performers.
With a reach extending far beyond the borders of his home state of New Mexico, Ortiz has created prints for fashion giant Donna Karan and continues to expand his own fashion line into the realms of clothing and accessories.
In August of this year, Ortiz premiered his latest project “Venutian Soldiers” during Indian Market in Santa Fe, NM. Inspired by “America’s First Revolution,” the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, Ortiz showcased a series of ceramic work and photography depicting an army of futuristic, indigenous superheroes outfitted with feathered gasmasks and latex loincloths.
Image from Virgil Ortiz’ Venutian Soldiers series
Posted by Guest Blogger: Rachel "Io" Waters on October 11th, 2012
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Hollywood would have you believe that American Indians are a pretty humorless lot. Stoic, tragic, fierce, mystical, romantic? Sure. But funny? Somehow the notion never caught on and yet nothing could be further from the truth.
Though I was born too late to share a joke with my more culturally connected Mvskoke relatives in Poarch Creek, Alabama, I had the benefit of spending much of my childhood in an Ojibwa household where laughter reigned supreme. I never saw anyone cry over garbage being tossed by the roadside, but I’ve spent many evenings shedding tears of joy. Bawdiness and wit are, for many indigenous peoples, virtues which help hold communities together, ensure the survival of stories and traditions and offer healthy means to cope with frustration and heartache.
Perhaps no one sums up the native experience and debunks stereotypes more concisely or hilariously than the 1491s, an all-native comedy group that describes itself as “a gaggle of Indians chock full of cynicism and splashed with a good dose of indigenous satire.”
In the video below – set to a 1979 disco cover of the song “I’m an Indian Too” from Annie Get Your Gun – the 1491s tackle the ongoing obsession in pop culture with all things Indian, lampooning hipsters who sport headdresses and contrasting popular images of Indians with natives (and a few fans of native culture) at the Santa Fe Indian Market:
It was a Thursday night in Albuquerque, discount NM, and on the floor of a small club on the outskirts of town a member of the Foundations of Freedom dance crew drew applause from onlookers. With his synthesis of moves culled from breakdance and traditions far older, the dancer transitioned from handspins to a kneeling archer’s position in one fluid motion. When the song – itself a hybrid of house and powwow music – finishes, the dancer straightened his shirt emblazoned with the image of a Playboy bunny sporting eagle feathers in place of ears.
A Tribe Called Red comprised some of the music at the event. The group, which emerged out of Canada in 2008, synthesizes powwow music and electronica into a genre known as “Powwow Step.”
The club was packed with people predominately from New Mexico’s 19 Pueblos and from the Navajo (Diné) nation. Those who turned out were clad in intricately beaded jewelry, hand-painted Chucks and witty T-shirts which nodded to pop culture or made parody and political statement out of the stereotypes that so many non-indigenous Americans ascribe to when it comes to native peoples.
The party was one among dozens of music, art and fashion events surrounding the Gathering of Nations powwow held every April in Albuquerque, NM, where more than 50,000 individuals from more than 500 nations come to dance, sell their wares and mingle. But for most of those in the club that night, the powwow itself wasn’t the main event.
Patrick CloudFace Burnham (foreground) and Randy Barton create live paintings at a Gathering of Nations after party.
In fact, for many it represented just another means for non-natives to exploit native people. And while some would go to support friends and family, others declared the event fodder for the colonized and instead chose to attend native-organized counter powwows and Sacred Cyphers where musicians, painters and dancers could express themselves in their own spaces through a fusion of native song, hip hop and electronic dance.