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War Paint

by Published on
by Daniel McCoy

At the current exhibit at DiverseWorks Art Space in Houston, “This Is Displacement,” artists pull back the curtain on a part of American culture that’s too often been defined by outsiders. The exhibit showcases 50 contemporary Native-American artists representing 19 tribal nations. All of them have something to say about how the centuries-long struggle with identity and geography is playing out in America.

“It is true that Native-American peoples do come from very ancient cultures, but we are not stagnant cultures of the ancient past,” says co-curator Carolyn Lee Anderson. “We are present now, today, and we are influenced by the same images and contemporary culture as everyone else who is alive in America today.”

“This Is Displacement” isn’t a dusty collection of tomahawks in glass cases or solemn paintings of buffalo hunts. The sculptures, paintings, short films, musical pieces and mixed media in the collection are the work of modern artists looking at their experiences as Native Americans through the lens of forced exile—from land, culture and language.

The great thing about art is that it allows its creators to lash out at the burden of history in whatever way they want. While white America has been having its way with Native-American culture for as long as there has been a white America—laughing at it here, scorning it there, criminalizing it when it frightens us, using it when we want to sell margarine or cigarettes—cultural appropriation goes both ways. Some of the most engaging pieces in “This Is Displacement” are biting reinterpretations of iconic American pop-culture images.

Kennetha Greenwood’s tongue-in-cheek twist on the classic American family, “A Very Braidy Bunch,” arranges the portraits of nine modern Native Americans in a grid like the shot from the opening credits of The Brady Bunch. Greenwood appropriates the image to address the pervasiveness of native stereotypes. He puts one of his subjects in a native headdress and a business suit. Another, a young girl, holds a traditional wooden flute while the man in the box next to her holds up a laptop computer. A woman above them wields a stethoscope. Each juxtaposition is another stereotype deflated. 

In his piece “Treaty of Displacement,” Ojibway artist Gordon M. Coons comments on the long history of white American double-dealing. He presents a charcoal rubbing of the plaque commemorating the 1796 Treaty of Greenville—which pushed the Ojibway off their land in the Northwest Territory and handed Ohio to the U.S. government—and surrounds it with painted shoe prints of multicolored moccasins retreating west before an onslaught of monochromatic boots. This is displacement at its most literal—first by government decree, then by force.

trailoftears

In “Cherokee History Lesson,” the photograph shown above by Tom Fields, three native men gaze at a campground marker recounting in fewer than 50 words the history of the Trail of Tears. These men are caught between two worlds, reading their history in a language that isn’t their own and that counts only their losses.

Maybe the most ironic and cutting piece is “Andrew Jackson Meets Voltron,” a painting by Daniel McCoy Jr. It manages to be an acknowledgment of the United States’ genocidal past, a nerd-boy comic-book sci-fi revenge fantasy and an example of the creativity that can grow out of pain, even pain that has lasted for hundreds of years and that keeps rolling on and on, with no end in sight.

Learn more about the exhibit here.

Josh Rosenblatt writes about film from New York City.