When rap group Public Enemy released the song “Fight the Power” in 1989 it spoke to discontent in the Black community and the need to rise up against an oppressive system. The tune was more than catchy. It was an anthem; an unflinching statement of Black pride. Early in the song Chuck D raps, “Got to give us what we want / Gotta give us what we need / Our freedom of speech is freedom or death / We got to fight the powers that be.”
Jeffrey Gibson uses a portion of Public Enemy’s lyrics in the mixed media piece “What We Want, What We Need” in “Like A Hammer,” a new exhibition on display at Seattle Art Museum (SAM). Crimson beads spell out the title of the work against a blue-and-black beaded background. According to the gallery text, the artist shaped the work that hangs on the wall like a Chilkat robe, a garment associated with the origins and wealth of Northwest Native clans. Below the beads, he created a checkerboard impression by layering rows of black and white yarn, as a nod to his love for Vans as a teenager. Trinkets and old pieces of jewelry he’s collected over the years also adorn the work.
Gibson listened to “Fight the Power” while working on the piece and he pondered how the lyrics relate to Indigenous communities. He is of Cherokee heritage and a citizen of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.
He related his experience as an Indigenous person to the message of the song. “It can be maybe easy to fall into the kind of traps of trauma and seeking other people to come and help you,” said Gibson. “But ultimately, for me, I feel like it’s our responsibility to help our own communities.”
“Like A Hammer” is a major survey of Gibson’s works from 2011 to present day. It’s an exhibition of textiles, elaborate sculptures, abstract paintings on deer hide and two videos. More than 65 striking and dramatic works fill the gallery. These vibrant creations are also thought-provoking. The influence of his ancestry and pop culture is clear. He also uses text throughout the works in the show, featuring the words of James Baldwin in multi-colored beads: “American history is longer, larger, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”
A focal point of the exhibition is 15 beaded punching bags hanging from the ceiling. Through beadwork, fringe and text, Gibson has transformed a boxing tool built for durability into an ornate object. In many the brand name “Everlast” is still visible. It’s also the title of the first punching bag he converted, which still holds sentimental value for the contemporary artist.