by Christopher Hutchinson
There is a persistent problem that emerges amongst marginalized artists. The attempt to use satire as a clever way to expose the inadequacies of systematic colonialism often only succeeds in proving the accuracy of the colonial structure. The Harlem Renaissance artists and thinkers were accused of assimilating and practicing the traits of the same colonial regime they tried to separate themselves from. This problem is present in the work of Wendy Red Star. The satire she employs simply does not exceed the status quo native propaganda proposed by the Western depictions.
Wendy Red Star’s socially critical installation draws inspiration and employs imagery from growing up on the Crow Indian Reservation in south-central Montana. Historic photographs and regalia are juxtaposed with tapestries, text, and objects she has constructed to re-humanize a past tribal leader whose image has been appropriated for commercial use. Photographs of Chief Medicine Crow (c. 1848-1920) were taken in Washington, D.C., when he and four other tribal leaders were coerced into signing a treaty ceding a portion of tribal lands to the United States Government. His image has frequently been used to represent a stereotypical, nameless, Indian “brave.” Red Star’s newest installation is an extension of her earlier work, which employed gender-focused, political self-imagery, not unlike the art of Cindy Sherman, Ana Mendieta, and Frida Kahlo, to draw attention to the marginalization of Native Americans.-http://portlandartmuseum.org/exhibitions/apex-wendy-red-star/
“In APEX, by replicating a historical museum diorama, she names and honors Medicine Crow, and revises the white man’s historical paradigm.” http://portlandartmuseum.org/exhibitions/apex-wendy-red-star/
Red Star’s naming of chief Medicine Crow is a lateral move from artifact to artifact. She wants to reclaim the image but has reprinted the image, which has notes in red scribbled all over the image. This is the same complaint with which she convicts Whites–the use and over use of the image of Medicine Crow. Red Star’s use of this image, while she intends it to be different, is no different than the sea of generalized depictions of Natives.
This points to another major factor that affects marginalized artists, the process of academia. Natives that attend art programs without peers in their nationality often feel the need for their counterparts to understand and communicate in Western language while receiving no feedback within their own language. That process often produces a native artist which has successfully communicated in a colonial way with very little of their own language present in the work. Academia should clarify one’s own language, not assimilate to the norm. Red Star is a self-proclaimed research artist and ends up with the same conclusions anyone else would from any google search about Crow Native. Nothing is added here except for the fact that she is a Native Crow. Her work is generic.
Wendy Red Star’s satire of White Squaw is a reinforcement of Native iconography as spectacle rather than a critique of the colonial. Many artists who deal with identity art only succeed at a reinforcement, not a critique. Red Star fulfills the directive of the original White Squaw novel narrative. Squaw being the half White and half Native that infiltrated and coerced Natives to acquiesce to the Whites.
Once again the clever trick in role playing here is not successful in surpassing the original intent of Western propaganda. The original novel has a White woman pretending to be an authentic Native. Red Star is an authentic Native assuming the role. That is a problem because it gives validation to the original novel, not an investigation to actual relations between Whites and Natives. Marginalized artists must be careful not to have so much of the colonial in their dialogue that it overshadows the dialogue of the indigenous.
Authority to name primitive
August 29, 2009–January 10, 2010
The objects featured in this exhibit, ones seen publicly for the first time, are drawn from a private collection developed over the past 30 years by an adventuresome couple from Tennessee. What started as a simple memento of the Southwest—a pair of small kachina dolls purchased in Santa Fe, New Mexico—eventually led to a remarkably rich and diverse collection of items produced by Indian peoples throughout all culture areas of Native North America. http://mcclungmuseum.utk.edu/exhibits/american-indian-art/
As well-intentioned as the McClung museum in Tennessee may be, the mere fact that contemporary Native exhibitions still are attempting to “discover” the Natives is a problem. This leads to the most disturbing aspect of Red Star, the documentary at the McClung museum is actually more thorough than Red Star’s own accounts.
The West has long held the power to name a culture as primitive. This is the problem of the “Other.” How can “Others,” including Native Americans, name and control their own dialogue? –Not with Satire & Spectacle.
Christopher Hutchinson is an accomplished Jamaican conceptual artist, professor and contributor to the art community as a writer, critic and founder of the nonprofit Smoke School of Art. He is a Professor of Art at Atlanta Metropolitan State College and has been featured as a lecturer including prestigious engagements at University of Alabama and the Auburn Avenue Research Library. For two decades, Chris has been a practicing artist. His works have been exhibited in internationally recognized institutions including City College New York (CUNY) and featured at the world’s leading international galleries such as Art Basel Miami. He has always had an innate passion for creating spaces where Africans and people of African descent contribute to an inclusive contemporary dialogue—ever evolving, not reflexive but pioneering. This requires challenging the rubric of the canon of art history, a systemic space of exclusion for the Other: women and non-Whites, and where necessary he rewrites it. He received his Master of Fine Arts Degree in Painting from Savannah College of Art & Design, Atlanta and his Bachelor of Arts Degree from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Alabama.