Native American Tradition Meets Modern Aesthetics in Jeffrey Gibson’s ‘DON’T MAKE ME OVER’ — Suna Cha

The Hoya, 10.02.2018

‘As cold rain drowned the streets outside with somber, gray tones, Jeffrey Gibson’s “DON’T MAKE ME OVER” infused Georgetown University’s newly built exhibition space with vibrant colors and sound.

The Maria & Alberto De La Cruz Art Gallery, under construction since February 2018, made its debut this fall in the Edmund A. Walsh Memorial Building. Gibson, a Choctaw-Cherokee painter and sculptor based in New York City, inaugurated the annual exhibitions cycle with his new work that combines Native American tradition with modern aesthetics.

On Sept. 27 at 6:30 p.m., the gallery hosted Gibson himself for the grand opening of his innovative three-part exhibition — installation, theatrical performance and painting. Becoming integrated into the exhibition space as the subject of the art himself, Gibson performed a 30-minute piece.

As the reception noise died down and the lights dimmed, Gibson began his performance with ominous, incomprehensible humming. The translucent, rainbow-colored curtain installation hung from the ceiling, forming a rectangular space around the artist and allowing us to see only part of him. The lighting created distinct shadows that established the mysterious mood. All around the curtains, words in chunky black font repeated the phrases “don’t make me over,” “don’t pick at the things I do” and “accept me for what I am.”

The artist’s outfit was another striking visual feature. He wore a suit carefully embellished from head to toe with conical and round bells used in Native American dances. Over the suit, he also wore a holographic gown that gave him a feather-like, ethereal quality and finished the appearance with a metallic crown around his head.

Relying solely on his voice and movement, the artist sang parts of “Don’t Make Me Over,” a 1962 pop song by Dionne Warwick. Gibson’s suit would clink with his varied movements, while his flapping motions further accentuated its kinetic and auditory features. The artist also played a hand drum that added bellowing volume compared to his wavering voice.

Although the garments were distinctive and engaging, the performance was not. The lyrical repetition of “don’t make me over” felt exhausting and overused, especially when the curtains overtly reflected this message. The artist only stepped out of this mantra to sing lyrics in a similar intonation: “somebody save me,” “Amazing Grace” and “Somewhere over the Rainbow.”

The repetitive assemblage of pop culture influences made the work feel unoriginal and uninspiring. But perhaps Gibson’s painfully obvious trajectory has reason to be as blatant and redundant as it is: The personality of the artist shows that the exhibit may have complex implications about identity and reconciliation.

Gibson incorporated his intersectional upbringing as queer, Native American and American into the performance. Having lived in Germany, England and South Korea, Gibson’s global experiences and complex identities also bleed into his work. An appropriate description of his personality, the exhibit wall description adds that Gibson would find himself “equally at home at a gay disco or an intertribal powwow.” Because pop music was his outlet for expression growing up, Gibson borrowed Warwick’s lyrics to encapsulate the theme of acceptance over assimilation.

Gibson’s series of acrylic paintings on wood panel also reflects a modern, abstracted and asymmetrical interpretation of the diptych. Rather than being rooted in gay culture, these “queer paintings” represent the “Other,” according to Gibson. In addition to queer theory, “DON’T MAKE ME OVER” overlaps with postcolonial critiques about the historical oppression of Native Americans.

Addressing his Native American and queer roots, Gibson transformed the exhibition space in a creative and interactive manner. Though the exhibit engages in multiple mediums — installation, performance and painting — that worked well together, the experience was overall monotonous and unrelieved.

Gibson challenges boundaries of Native American art, and his previous works reveal his colorful expression eloquently woven together in detail. Viewers seeking the most rewarding experience should skip his performance and focus instead on Gibson’s visual works. Luckily, without even having to walk up four flights of stairs, students can easily access the gallery’s opening exhibit in Walsh to take a look at Gibson’s “DON’T MAKE ME OVER”.