Remixing Native American Art — Susan Delson

The Wall Street Journal, 02.06.2020

Jeffrey Gibson first spotted “The Dying Indian”—a bronze statue of a Native American man on horseback, by the American sculptor Charles Cary Rumsey —while he was leaving the Brooklyn Museum. Mr. Gibson, an artist of Choctaw and Cherokee descent, was struck not just by the sculpture’s suggestion of a vanishing Native American culture but by its placement behind the building, near the parking lot. “It’s such a cliché of museums to have one of these sculptures”—a Native American scene like Rumsey’s, made by a non-Native artist around the turn of the last century—“and to not know what to do with it,” Mr. Gibson said. “The first priority for me was getting ‘The Dying Indian’ inside the museum.”

Now the sculpture is among the first works to greet viewers in “Jeffrey Gibson : When Fire Is Applied to a Stone It Cracks,” opening Feb. 14 at the Brooklyn Museum. With one addition: a pair of intricately beaded moccasins on the figure’s feet, commissioned from Pawnee/Cree artist John Little Sun Murie. Displaying the phrase “I’m Gonna Run With Every Minute I Can Borrow”—a line from a Roberta Flack song, modified by Mr. Gibson—the new footwear recasts “The Dying Indian” as a resourceful survivor. Behind the statue, a floor-to-ceiling mural also spells out the phrase in intense hues.

That eye-catching, thought-provoking juxtaposition is characteristic of Mr. Gibson’s work. Trained at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Royal College of Art in London, he learned modernism “through the lens of Euro-American perspectives,” he said. His own work brings to bear other influences, including Native American culture, pop music and haute couture. It’s a compelling mix: Last year, Mr. Gibson was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellowship.

“In a single work you might see a range of art-historical and cultural references,” said Eugenie Tsai, the Brooklyn Museum’s senior curator of contemporary art. At the same time, she added, Mr. Gibson is looking to convey “how innovative and hybrid indigenous art has always been—that it is something living and organic, and that he is on that continuum.”

The new exhibition showcases more than 20 of Mr. Gibson’s works, including paintings, sculpture, ceramics and a stained-glass window. They are shown alongside some three dozen objects that he selected from the Brooklyn Museum’s collection of Native American art. “I was nervous about that,” Mr. Gibson admitted. “It’s a tricky thing to do.” Museum collections of Native works, he said, “are politically charged. They’re very emotional for people from whom these objects have been taken, for their communities.”

As an art student in Chicago, Mr. Gibson worked at the Field Museum of Natural History. There he assisted tribal delegations who, under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, evaluated objects held by the museum for possible return to their tribes. The experience was transformative. Tribal elders would advise him to handle an object with care “because it has the ability to make you sick,” while non-Native curators would talk about the piece as “inanimate—just an object.” The experience “felt so much bigger—and I would say now is much bigger—than the way we talk about art,” Mr. Gibson concluded. “I brought all of that into this project.”

In the show’s first gallery, “The Dying Indian” is joined by a selection of moccasins and boots representing several Native American tribes. Arrayed in a semicircle at the statue’s base, they suggest a lineage of Native runners accompanying the newly shod bronze figure.

In the adjoining gallery, another floor-to-ceiling mural by Mr. Gibson wraps the walls in vertical lines of saturated color. “All I Wanted, All I Needed” (2019), a canvas punching bag covered in patterned beadwork, hangs in one corner. Across the room, “Mound Builder” (2013), an abstract painting done on elk hide, is shown near a case containing painted hide bags, or parfleches, from the collection.

Other display cases present beaded and embroidered caps, colorful appliquéd garments and headdresses by unknown Native artists from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For Mr. Gibson, these works are a way of acknowledging his influences. “I might be a DJ visual remixer,” he said wryly, “but I didn’t invent appliqué. I didn’t invent rickrack, I didn’t invent beadwork. I see myself as a continuation of these things that have existed before me.”

History plays an important role in Mr. Gibson’s art. The three garment works on view were partly inspired by the Ghost Dance movement. Originating with the Northern Paiute Peoples of Nevada, California and Oregon in the late 1800s, it involved “ghost shirts” that supposedly protected their wearers from bullets. Something of that faith in the power of self-made garments resonates in Mr. Gibson’s pieces. “I love to embrace mediums and formats that have been dismissed as not having intellectual capability,” he said. “And clothing is one of those things.”

The show’s final gallery turns an exploratory eye toward archival research. Historian Christian Ayne Crouch, who co-organized the show with Mr. Gibson, scoured the museum’s library and archives for materials that might expand visitors’ notions of Native life. An array of photographs, maps, rare books and other documents explore themes of laughter, family, land and creative making.

On one wall, an oversize photograph from 1903 sets the tone, showing a Navajo girl laughing gleefully as she prepares her loom for weaving. On another wall, a 19th-century tepee liner—a large sheet of hide or muslin hung around the tepee’s inner wall—serves as an archive in its own right, pictorially chronicling the life and deeds of its creator, the Húnkpapa Lakota warrior Rain-In-The-Face. In taking a fresh look at Native American art and culture, “we’re not looking to simplify,” said Mr. Gibson. Rather, “there is an expansive way of thinking about these things that collects us all into the conversation.”