Art catalog on Humor /2007

Blog Entry

Susan Shown Harjo on Humor

Sep 27, ’07 3:13 AM

by little_running_deer for group lrdjournal

Without Reservation
By Susan Shown Harjo | Published  01/12/1998 | Arts


Without Reservation

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

HERE IS YOUR HOBBY, by Judith Lowrey (Maidu/ Hamowi Pit River), mixed media, 1994

Much of the artwork focuses on survival humor-different ways of dealing with histories about, and conditions of, Native Americans. This humor, wrote artist Jean LaMarr (Paiute/Pit River) “is usually kept within our communities. Opening this door into this part of our lives brings a different light to the dialogue.” LaMarr, also an educator, lives on the Susanville Rancheria (also Lowry’s home reservation) in northern California, where LaMarr directs the Native American Graphic Workshop.

LaMarr describes her mixed-media work, “Land O’ Plenty,” as part of a postcard-image series depicting “negative stereotypes of Native American women. This cartoon image of a ‘squaw’ and numerous ‘papooses’ is a play on a cliche statement describing the ‘West,’ which offered to the immigrant ‘plenty’ of open land for the taking” and portrayed “indigenous people [as] obstacles in the way of progress and manifest destiny.”

Bently Spang’s bronze, mixed-media work-“The Beginning Of The End For The End Of The Trail”-“deals with a very un-funny subject: racism and the stereotypes that arise from it in a way that I think is funny.” By placing them in “their true context” – “a child’s toy (after all they are a game, right?)”- Spang hopes that “people might begin to understand just how foolish they are. . . .”

Spang (Cheyenne) is a sculptor and performance/installation artist who lives in Montana. “You see, regardless of how the experts define the function of humor in my culture, the bottom line is we are a pretty darn funny people, ” he stated for the exhibit catalogue. Humor “has helped us deal with incredible adversity and hardship over the years and is still an integral part of life today. I just can’t imagine going back to the Northern Cheyenne ‘res’ and not being teased and not laughing until my stomach hurts.”

Coyote, Trickster and Indian Humor

Artist Harry Fonseca (Nisenan Maidu), describes Coyote as the “infamous Native American folk hero” and “more than a trickster.” Coyote “encompasses all of human nature and the world around us,” he says. While Fonseca calls Coyote “playful and foolish, ” he says, “I never forget that he is wild, he is a dog, that he can bite very, very hard.”

MEDICINE MAN’S HEADPIECE, by Marcus Amerman (Choctaw), mixed media, 1986

Coyote is portrayed in Fonseca’s mixed-media work on canvas, “Shuffle Off To Buffalo,” as a vaudeville hoofer in stripes, top hat and tennis shoes, dancing on a stage bordered by miniature white buffalos. In his acrylic on canvas-“Wide-Eyed and Bushy-Tailed”-Fonseca presents two Coyote pals in zippered jackets and jeans, showing off waist-to-toe posterior manes.

Jean LaMarr writes in the catalogue that Coyote is “generally portrayed as a male persona, forever seeking to satisfy his curiosities and sexual appetite. Sometimes Coyote becomes a female or dons other disguises to get what he wants.” LaMarr’s mixed-media mask “reinterprets the female persona as a hip, sexy character.” Her dolled-up “Ms. Coyote” has seriously studded ears-a flower behind one and the other bent over with the weight of a beaded rose earring.

Duane Slick (Sauk /Fox) also exhibits on the Coyote theme, from his “Coyote Television Bookpiece” series of text and images on plexiglass. His pieces carry such titles as “There Is A Coyote In The Television And He Is Always Turning Around On Purpose” and “I Am Coyote.”

Belly-Laughs and Food For Thought

Several artists in “Indian Humor” serve up a cross-cultural fare that needs no translation — food. “Chippewa Fast Food” by Jeffery Chapman (Chippewa) is a watercolor quick-take of a buckshot carry-out bag with exposed deer-horn tips.

Truman Lowe (Winnebago) shows a table setting with a bowl of tiny buffalos from his “Traditional Dinnerware Gourmet Ch(i)ef Series.” An artist/educator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Lowe writes that “Indian humor is like frybread, it feeds the soul and nourishes tradition.”

Commenting on the downside of frybread (sometimes called greasebread) is Richard Glazer-Danay (Caughnawaga Mohawk), also an artist/educator, at California State University at Long Beach. His wood and mixed-media works, “Fry Bread Freda” and “Fry Bread Fred,” are round-faced Indians on rounder bodies painted with other people, animals, icons and pie a la mode inside them.

Sharon Dryflower’s tubby clay clowns from her “Koshari Boy” series are eating and offering a cheeseburger and a lot of watermelon. “As a child, these clowns were the death of me,” wrote Dryflower (Taos Pueblo). “But as I look back, they were my lesson teachers.” She says the “Koshari’s job” is to “bring humor, to teach and bless us with seasons.”

George Longfish (Seneca/Tuscarora) uses the “Land O Lakes” Indian butter-maiden box at the core of his mixed-media political statement, “Lightly Salted.” And Jaune Quick-To-See Smith (Flathead) uses “Psatore” olive oil and “Hi-Yu” apple labels for her lithographs, “Indian Heart” and “Modern Times.”

Grandmas, Babes and Man/Woman Stuff

“Indian Humor” presents more than twenty images solely of women, nearly half of them done by male artists. Marcus Amerman (Choctaw) beaded a red-bodied, swim-suited Brooke Shields on a black leather jacket “out of a need to have something to look cool in.”

DAY DREAMING, by Marwin Begaye (Din’), acrylic on canvas

In “Daydreaming,” Marwin Begaye (Din챕) paints a velvet-clothed Grandma, shaded by dark glasses and an umbrella, flying through blue skies and white clouds on a frybread. His acrylic on canvas “is about a traditional Navajo woman who appears when something is thought about too seriously. When the Grandma flies by, I start laughing and feel good inside, which gives me a different perspective on life.”

“Tammy Girl #159” is the competition dancer in Arthur Amiotte’s mixed-media work, “The Zen Electric Jingle Dress Dancer: The Sound of One Jingle Jangling.” She illustrates Amiotte’s point that the “blending of non-Indian faddish ideas, New Age synthesis, and ‘hurry-up’ making of some modern dance outfits produces some very funny situations.” Amiotte (Oglala Sioux) says he “actually saw a young lady dressed in detail as I have portrayed her in this painting, with the exception of the electric lights.”

Susan Stewart (Crow) says her “Self Portrait of the Artist Posing as an Object of Curiosity” deals with the “stereotypes I was confronted with as a child, and later as a young woman. It is reflective of the way I saw women portrayed through the one-way mirror of the mass media, and the celluloid image of the ‘Hollywood blonde.'”

Stewart writes that her photo transfer painting “allowed me to dress up and act out, if you will, my own rendition of ‘Barbie’ that functions as a reversal of the way Hollywood producers dressed up white women to portray Indian women in their films. . . . I have attempted to shed light on the basic inanity of the male-controlled film world and its notions of how a ‘caricature’ of any kind can ever meet with reality.”

Respecting and ‘Dis-ing’ the Natural World

Santa Clara Pueblo sculptor Roxanne Swentzell’s “The Cow Woman Isn’t Amused” is an earthenware “gesture expressing the upset feelings of cows” in the Pueblo tradition of relaying “important messages and warnings through gestures.” She writes that “Americans tend to only use the cow for sustenance as if this was something. . . they have a right to without any gratitude, reverence or honor. Being half human/half cow, the cow woman hopes to receive some empathy.”

“Disrespect,” another Jeffrey Chapman watercolor, depicts a beaver wearing a human-effigy necklace and turning its back on a nearly gnawed-through utility pole. The beaver is showing “disdain for modern use of natural resources,” says the artist, and its “potential to cause a lack of power to those who abuse what they have.”

Marcus Amerman, Sharol Graves and Larry McNeil mix natural world and technological symbols. Amerman’s “Medicine Man’s Headpiece” is made of feathers with beaded tips extending from a doctor’s optical device. He says the “piece was conceived as an accessory for the modern day techno-shaman.”

The serigraph prints by Graves (Shawnee) “started out as a joke” in her Silicon Valley days. Later combining Native designs and computer design software, she “enjoyed looking at the complex geometric patterns of the circuit boards that I helped design and produce. . . . I wanted the public to know that a Native American was working in . . . high technology, just to blow a few stereotypes about the ‘Indian mind.’ ”

McNeil (Tlingit/Nisga’a) says his photo collage, “Fly, Don’t Walk,” began with a walk past a block-long white wall. “On the wall’s face was a single bird gracefully gliding its shadow in circles and lines. . . . I was going to cross the street, but came to a ‘don’t walk’ sign. Finally the red hand turned into the figure of a White man walking. . . . I did my best imitation of a White man walking and crossed the street.”

Nora Naranjo-Morse (Santa Clara Pueblo) fully explains her clay, copper, wire, wood and silver sculpture in its title, “Rosita Fished With A Metal Rod During Electrical Storms Because Grandma Taught Her That Strong Spiritual Conduct Was Essential To Pueblo Living.”

The “Indian Humor” artists’ roster also features Muriel Antoine, Pena Bonita, Joe Cantrell, Steven Deo, Peter Jemison, Michael Kabotie, Ernest Pepion, Lillian Pitt, Rosanda Suetopka, Gail Tremblay, Kay Walkingstick and Paula Franklin Yazzie, whose artwork appears on the cover of the catalogue.


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