This Saturday, Sept. 8, the Wellin Museum of Art will present Jeffrey Gibson: This Is The Day. The exhibit will debut new works by Gibson that include a film commissioned by the Wellin, a group of five elaborately adorned helmets, and a series of large-scale sculptural garments, all of which will hang from tipi poles attached to the gallery ceiling. Gibson showcases a wide range of artistic mediums and draws on a variety of influences to comment on race, sexuality, religion, and gender.
Gibson is a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and is half Cherokee. He has travelled around the world for much of his adult life and grew up in major cities across the United States, Germany, Korea, and England. This unique combination of backgrounds plays an important role in Gibson’s work, which largely focuses on themes of identity, cultural perception, and his own personal history.
This Is The Day combines pop and queer culture along with historical and contemporary references to his Native American heritage, including the 19th century Ghost Dance and the effects of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Through painting, sculpture, embroidery, beaded works, stained glass, and video, the works in the exhibit explore his continued interest in the act of self-adornment as a historical and contemporary occurrence.
Gibson is also a filmmaker. His new film, I Was Here (2018), centers around Macy, a transgender woman and member of the Choctaw Nation. The film was shot at the Choctaw Reservation in central Mississippi where Gibson’s family originates. This location plays an important role in the film. By intercutting scenes of the mystical, natural landscape of the Choctaw reservation with Macy’s daily life, Gibson’s film explores the private and personal acts of self-transformation. According to Gibson; “Making new work for This Is The Day gave me the opportunity to explore new content, materials, and formats that have pushed my practice further. The garments and the commissioned video deal with contemporary issues of identity and establish a dialogue that is inclusive and about how the representation of one’s subjective narrative is complex, valid, and never didactic. “The garments” refer to the traditional shirts associated with the Ghost Dance, a movement that originated with the Paiute people around 1870 and intensified when a Paiute shaman, Wovoka, had a vision in 1889 prophesying the peaceful end of the Westward Expansion and the return of land to Native American people.
Wovoka believed that proper practice of the dance would reunite the living with the spirits of the dead, would bring the spirits of the dead to fight on their behalf, and would bring peace, prosperity, and unity to Native American peoples throughout the region. “Ghost shirts” were worn during the dance and were thought to guard against bullets through spiritual power. Gibson puts his own twist on this concept by exaggerating the size of his garments and sewing together a combination of objects: vintage quilts, beaded “whimsies,” metallic jingles, amulets, charms, beads, and long ribbons of fringe.
The five helmets that will be on view for the first time at the Wellin explore different themes found in Gibson’s artwork: love, play, peace, death, and the deep sea. The helmets are adorned with crystals, charms, beads, shells, gun replicas, doll parts, and other collected and handmade objects. The helmets themselves are also oversized, heavy, and impractical to wear, weighing between 35 and 55 pounds each. Together, the garments and the helmets point to human layers of identity, while their impracticality highlights the often-weighty connotations of cultural responsibilities. Tracy L. Adler, director of the Wellin Museum, explains: “Since the museum was founded, it has been strongly committed to providing artists with the creative space and resources to develop new projects. [Gibson] is an artist whom I have known and admired for many years. The themes that he explores in his practice are more relevant now than ever, when conflicting narratives about identity and how we define ourselves dominate mainstream discussion. We are excited to introduce this significant body of work to both the Hamilton community and broader audiences.”