Tapping into who we are, what we know and who we know

What is the role of the artist in today’s global and multicultural civilization? How can we make art to express our multifaceted identities? Jeffrey Gibson is a contemporary Native American artist of Choctaw-Cherokee heritage, whose art practice seeks creative answers to these complex questions.

Gibson was working as a painter and sculptor when he realized that the myth of the artist and genius does nothing more than perpetuate specific art world and cultural privilege. For Gibson, being artist is not about embracing an esoteric practice of creating objects of desire for an elite audience, but rather embracing the role of a member of society who cultivates multicultural relationships by collaborating creatively with the people around him. This collaboration results in a visual communication of intersectional identity and ideas, which are explored through traditional and non-traditional materials. Gibson’s materials and inspiration for his artistic practice come from the relationships he builds with people from his own multicultural background. He has reached out to other Native American artists and craftspeople in order to develop powerful objects that symbolically expressed the shared cultural experiences and personal narratives of indigenous artists.

Traditionally, visual imagery and cultural objects from the indigenous Americans have been taught and re-presented through a historical lens. This relegates Native American culture as a totemic or fetishized discipline for our colonialist scrutiny, and most importantly, it fails to recognize the fact that Native Americans have existed and thrived to this day.  Furthermore, art museums are well behind the times in collecting and presenting modern and contemporary works by Native American artists. Integration between Native American and Western American artwork is too few and far between and/or problematic and controversial. The latter is exemplified by the work of Jimmie Durham, an American artist who appropriates Native American (specifically Cherokee) themes, while his identity as a Cherokee is highly contested by Cherokee curators and artists. Regardless of the facts surrounding Durham’s cultural identity, there are large gaps and blurred lines between modern and contemporary Native American art and modern and contemporary American art, which Gibson’s work seeks to address.

Through an interdisciplinary discourse around his intersectional identity as a Native American growing up enveloped by Western consumer culture, Gibson fuses contemporary Western and non-Western perspectives within his works of art. Dance and fashion are some of the creative elements that Gibson transforms to express an interconnectivity between his identity as a LGBTQ Choctaw-Cherokee man and the popular traditions of both indigenous and colonial America. For example, he has created vibrant sculptural outfits used in performances, which are inspired by Native American pow wows, as well as nightlife and club scene culture. The outfits are indicative of an eclectic mix between native American regalia and the New Romantic club movement, which included the enigmatic fashion designer, club promoter and performance artist Leigh Bowery. Gibson’s sculptural costumes, which are created through intricate patterning and layering of found objects, entice our sensory perceptions (specifically sight and sound), while drawing upon a wide variety of archetypal themes.

Gibson’s collaboration with contemporary Native American individuals, some of which are described in the TED talk video at the top of this post, have yielded works that blur the lines between craft and conceptual art. The realized objects re-present Native American culture in an ongoing discourse, which stays true to tradition while embracing the complexities and interpersonal relationships of contemporary life. For example, Gibson collaborated with Native American choreographer, dancer, musician and activist, Jesse McMann-Sparvier, who created eight traditional elk-hide drums, which Gibson then painted and arranged as a hanging sculpture. The sculpture resembles a twelve foot totem suspended by rawhide lacing, and can be easily transported from one space to another. Gibson has also re-appropriated objects of personal significance from individuals like David Rowland, whose passion for skateboarding helped him persevere through tough times. Gibson re-presented Rowland’s worn in skateboard as a sculpture, wrapped in hand painted animal hide that alludes to traditional Native American rawhide containers known as a parfleche. He called the sculpture Time Capsule (David Rowland’s Skateboard (2012), as a preservation of Gibson’s memory about Rowland’s triumphant personality.

With a steady growth in student diversity in many school districts throughout the United States, multicultural educational curricula is essential in order to provide each student with relevant and relatable learning experiences. Ensuring that students develop the skills and knowledge to become competent participants in multicultural communities enables them to contribute to interpersonal societal relationships, which influence the continual creation of culture (Kuster 2006). Showing a diverse range of examples of artwork that spans across time and place, is a great way for educators to keep students engaged with the visual culture that encompasses our current era of globalization. Students can analyze art objects from an extensive group of cultures, and be asked to think about who made the objects, where they come from and what their impact might be within the culture where it was made. Added contextual background, provided by the teacher, about the artist(s) and artworks, will facilitate students’ understanding about how an artist imbues an artwork with significant meaning related to social, emotional and cultural conditions. For example, students might be shown Jeffrey Gibson’s Time Capsule (David Rowland’s Skateboard), watch a video clip of Jeffrey talking about his relationship with David Rowland, and interpret which aspects of the work are reminiscent of different cultures and the personal connections that the sculpture expresses.

In response to their understanding about how visual art symbolically represents a personal and/or collective narrative, students can share objects that have personal significance to them and express why they are meaningful and how they might signify the culture and environment that they are a part of (Tavin and Hausman 2004). Students can map out traits that represent who they are and create works of art that express their aspirations, dreams and experiences using their personal object as a starting point of reference.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Kuster, Deborah. 2006. “Back to the Basics: Multicultural Theories Revisited and Put into Practice.” Art Education, 59(4): pps: 33-39.

Landry, Alysa. “‘All Indians Are Dead?’ At Least That’s What Most Schools Teach Children.” Indian Country Today, 17 Nov. 2014. https://newsmaven.io/indiancountrytoday/archive/all-indians-are-dead-at-least-that-s-what-most-schools-teach-children-6Hk8Ahnr0EG0dsV4MssWcg/

Tavin, Kevin and Hausman, Jerome. 2004. “Art Education and Visual Culture in the Age of Globalization.” Art Education, 57(4): pps. 47-52.

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