By Susan Shown Harjo | Published 01/12/1998 | Arts
A new exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian allows visitors to view the lighter side of Native art.
By Suzan Shown Harjo
George Blake was watching a football game between the Oakland Raiders and Washington Redskins when he saw a man race onto the field and start “jumping around with a double-trail warbonnet on his head.” Blake, a Hupa/Yurok artist from California, could barely contain his laughter.
“I thought of the creation of a new mascot. . . .
Something that their greater Moral Majority could identify with,” Blake recalls. So, he went to work molding his own football helmet with a new team logo, sporting the profile of a blond, unshaven White man-“DC Redneck.”
For Blake, humor was an instinctive reaction to an otherwise serious issue — the use of Indian images and names as mascots in professional sports.
IT”S HARD TO BE TRADITIONAL WHEN YOU’RE ALL PLUGGED IN, by Jack Malotte (Western Shoshone), mixed media, 1983
Humor has been helping Native Americans get by for centuries. Ever hear of Chippewa fast food? Do you know what Pueblo spiritual conduct is to Rosita? Keep reading, or even better, see “Indian Humor,” a special exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.
From May 31 through August 2, the NMAI will showcase “Indian Humor” at its George Gustav Heye Center, featuring eighty-seven paintings, sculptures, photographs, textiles and mixed-media works by thirty-eight Native American artists.
NMAI Founding Director Richard West (Cheyenne) allows that humor, like beauty and art, is in the eye of the beholder. But he predicts that “any visitor to this exhibition is bound to be tickled by more than a few of the works that give these fine artists a chuckle.”
Native Americans can have a lighthearted view of many things that others take for granted. Consider the artist’s statement of Jack Malotte (Western Shoshone):
“Prize-winning traditional dancers make me laugh. White Indian experts make me laugh. Christian Indians make me laugh. White artists who paint Indian things better than Indians make me laugh. Indian tacos being called a traditional food makes me laugh. Indians who call themselves cowboys make me laugh. Mixing Indian culture with the dominant society makes me laugh.”
Malotte’s artwork mixes Indian cultural and broad societal images in his mixed-media work, “It’s Hard To Be Traditional When You’re All Plugged In.” The piece features an Indian in sunglasses in front of ceremonial symbols, a “Hot Slots” sign and a home entertainment center.
The pieces in “Indian Humor” were gathered over five years by American Indian Contemporary Arts in San Francisco. Executive Director Janeen Antoine (Sicangu Lakota) says this “is an especially important exhibit because it counters a popular notion that Indians are stoic and serious.”
AICA has been showing “Indian Humor” for three years in museums, campuses and on reservations. The Heye Center is the last stop on the tour.
“The work is silly, sharp, witty, sardonic,” says NMAI project manager Jennifer Miller. “We’re putting our own spin on the show and having fun with the graphics and presentations, and reconnecting with the artists and curator for the original intent.” Kathleen Ash-Milby (Navajo) of NMAI’s curatorial staff says the exhibit team is “excerpting heavily from the artists’ statements and not over-explaining the work because, then, it’s not funny. But we also want to convey how humor’s been used as a survival tool. It’s deeper than one-liners.”
“Indian Humor” curator for AICA, Sara Bates (Cherokee), now teaches art at San Francisco State University. Reflecting on the challenges of curating the exhibits, she recalls that “we were all worried that people might not get the things that we thought were funny.”
Bates called the artists’ statements “the hardest and most important things to get.” Nevertheless, she “very much appreciated even those ‘no comments’ by artists who wanted their work to speak for itself.” Peter Jones (Onondaga) did not elaborate on his work, “Bingo Dauber Fetish,” but wrote that the “idea of ‘Indian’ humor is somewhat akin to ‘Indian’ art. What is it? When approached to do a piece for this show, all I could think of were stories and jokes, incidents and happenings, the ‘you-had-to-be-there’ type of humor. Nothing that could easily be translated from oral to three-dimensional. Native Americans have always had the ability to laugh at themselves, especially at the most inopportune or inappropriate times. . . . Humor has been our vent in bad times.”
The Lighter Side of Colonialism
Judith Lowry (Maidu/Hamowi Pit River) expressed her gratitude “for this exhibit, for the fun I had in creating these new mixed-media works and for allowing me the opportunity to give expression to the ‘lighter’ side of colonialism.” In “Here Is Your Hobby,” Lowry surrounds a flattened “Walco Indian Beadcraft” box with kitschy beadwork and dyed feathers on an “Indian leatherwork” background