The Autry Museum of the American West feels hidden within LA’s Griffith Park. Its exhibition When I Remember I See Red: American Indian Art and Activism in California is on view through November 14th. The exhibition presents a diverse collection of contemporary work by artists of Native American descent, seeking to venerate their cultural endurance and chastise efforts toward their erasure. One of seven information walls, entitled “California’s Genocide,” notes a minute step toward healing made by Governor Gavin Newsom’s 2019 executive order, which issued an apology for state-sanctioned genocide of Native American populations. The exhibition’s contending with his apology reminds me of Layli Long Soldier’s brilliant 2017 book of poems Whereas and her own engagement with President Obama’s similar 2009 apology. For Long Soldier, that apology was more rhetorical flourish than actual amends. Her book weaves federal language among her poetic form to indicate the rhetorical hoops that government powers hop through to apologize without grappling with history. The Autry’s exhibition, like Long Soldier’s poetry, works to make sense of contemporary Indian subjectivity within a complex cultural paradigm. The importance of nurturing tradition is as palpable as the tense, reluctant acknowledgment of cultural evolution that has been aggressively forced upon Native American tribes by U.S. imperial force.
Following her introduction of Obama’s apology, Long Soldier writes, “If I’m transformed by language, I am often / crouched in footnote or blazing in title. / Where in the body do I begin.” Her acknowledgement of being “transformed by language” hints that it’s a foreign language – the language of colonization – that exerts transformational force. She writes in English, wrestling with an external world that has brought new language without her in mind. Her language was rendered footnote in order to force Native Americans to find a way to partake in productive society. The seven sections of the Autry’s exhibition simmer with similar tension. Among the variety of artists in the exhibition, viewers might recall styles ranging from abstract, to modernism, expressionism or photography. It’s clear that, like Long Soldier, these artists navigate among the languages of their past and the languages that have been imposed on them. In the face of this vexed relationship between artist and style, however, the artists channel diverse mediums to perform vivid celebrations of indigenous culture and spirituality, and to discharge activist battle cries toward hegemonic oppressors.
Some pieces work in more traditional forms of painting. Bicentennial Indian by Fritz Scholder sits an Indian in a chair, his lap covered by an American flag. The piece is meant to directly critique American mythology. Scholder recalls Betsy Ross, the supposed designer of the first iteration of the American flag, and cultural celebrations of her. It also however, evokes land tensions, especially in light of the sections reminder, “You Are On Native Land.” The man sits in an unthreatening manner, the only indigenous signifier a feather in hand. The flag then covers his lap as if to contain him. If he stood up, it might fall, and yet there is no indication that upward movement is in the cards for him. If the man signifies the land, the flag signifies the covering force of American imperial power that actively works to render American Indians into docile bodies.
Spencer Keeton Cunningham’s Untitled (Cuneiform Series) is in the same section, yet the style directly contrasts Scholder’s piece. Cunningham’s piece organizes a collection of signifiers meant to emulate Cuneiform – one of the earliest forms of writing. It’s an interesting piece that characterizes Cunningham’s personality by channeling a hybrid linguistic and artistic form. It’s a scattered, idiosyncratic selection that looks like it could be a part of a comic strip or a tattoo flash sheet. The signifiers range from teepees and cacti to moneybags, cigarettes and skateboards. Each small image seems to float separately within the white printed sphere, illustrating Cunningham’s culturally diverse subjectivity made up of seemingly unrelated elements. An image of a spear contrasts images of a gun and a noose, highlighting the historical and cultural tensions that have characterized American progress and Indian erasure. Each image is also the same size, suggesting that for a contemporary artist like Cunningham they each hold equally prevalent import on his personal cultural surroundings.
The next section, “Interconnectedness,” is focused on environmental and landscape ideas, but it presents a similar diversity in form and concept. One might not be surprised that, though each section insinuates a focus, broader ideas – like the environmental – tend to run through most of the exhibition. Tony Abeyta, whose father was also a major Navajo painter, deals in mixed media abstraction. He pastes signage for Treasure Island, CA, where the piece was created, underneath a painting of a Yeibichai Dancer Mask. You might not realize upon first look, however, that the image is a mask. Nor does the painting seem to be an explicit celebration of heritage, but rather another negotiation with the tensions of hybrid subjectivity. Yellow beams reminiscent of Hollywood spotlights shoot towards the tops of the canvas borders, suggesting cultural and environmental pollution. The mask itself is filled with dark hues of blue, red and black, suggesting that underneath the mask lies a brooding, interior tension. By way of abstraction, the painting manages to be both darkly beautiful and chaotically terrifying.
Adjacent to Abeyta’s abstraction hangs the opposite – a panoramic photograph filled with an image that’s as clear as day. Lewis deSoto’s image is stretched in order to zero in on the physical manifestations of American Capitalism. The awe that might be catalyzed by the wide-open sky of the American West is purposefully limited. The foci of the images are the imposing oil machines, pumping from the dusty, desolate ground. They’re complemented by telephone poles, another energy source. They’re spiky in appearance, perhaps in order to allude to the unwelcoming nature of plots of land like this. There’s no abstraction here. deSoto identifies these two energy sources to remark explicitly on the ugly side effects of mechanization and power. Upon stolen land a sinister infrastructure now sits. The image contains a stretch of California but it, of course, could be copied and pasted from many states throughout the country.
The final section of the exhibition is devoted to one artist. Of Frank LaPena, they write that he “defined a generation of Native artists who live with the spirits of their Ancestors and have become a voice for the past, present and future of the Native experience California and beyond.” It’s easy to see why curators situate his work as a culmination of the exhibition as the work spans mediums and attitudes, ranging from dark to light. His larger than life painting North Mountain presents a celestial vision. A bird spirit covers the mountain with a bright, protective blanket. The paint drips at the bottom half giving the image a touch of mystical realism – it is as though the bird has covered the mountain in snow, and excess drips down onto the surrounding landscape. It’s clearly a spiritual image that LaPena recalls from his own ancestral traditions.
History of California Indians, perhaps my favorite piece in the exhibition, is an obvious activist text. LaPena weaves 8 lithographs of a face that appears to be zapped of life, almost ghostly. Each forehead is overlaid with a specific icon – among them a Christian church and an atomic bomb – performing a political indictment. Text overlays the images, listing the detailed crimes against native peoples such as “the oppressive Spanish Mission system, the deadly epidemics [and] the state-sponsored genocide of the gold rush.” The text is small, alluding that the events they describe are the subtext of the piece, just as they are the power obscured subtext of American progress. The text, on top of the images, generates a rather powerful and haunting view of American political response to Native cultures. This is a piece that might shrug at Gavin Newsom’s institutional apology toward California’s Indian populations.
I’d wager that the entire exhibition is a bit of a shrug toward figures like Newsom and Obama, despite the politicians’ good intentions. The importance of the exhibition runs the gamut from the personal to the historical to the political. Of course, one function of bringing this range of artists together is to illustrate that those three strains are deeply intertwined, especially for indigenous cultures. It also, importantly, lends each artist breadth of personality. This is the first exhibition of Native American art that I’ve seen that doesn’t all seem to rely upon found artifacts and limited imagery. The artists, by negotiating with the languages they’ve had to master, remind us that we live on stolen land and they refuse the erasure of their cultural legacies.