In Radiant Paintings and Beaded Extravaganzas, Jeffrey Gibson Remixes Native American Histories

When Jeffrey Gibson first visited the Venice Biennale in anything like an official capacity, he was a fledgling artist just starting to make his way. It was 2007, and he had traveled to Italy at the invitation of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). But he had no artwork to show, nor any real role to play. He was simply there to see what he could see, like all the other hundreds of thousands of visitors to the art world’s biggest international event.

A member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and of Cherokee descent, Gibson had garnered attention with a couple small solo shows in New York and a pair of notable group exhibitions that followed. But his status was a matter of perspective. “I felt very emerging at that point,” Gibson recalled. “But because the Native art world and the larger art world were so separate at the time, I think most of my peers who were non-Native were unaware. It was like I was at different stages in different contexts.”

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He was reminiscing from a very different vantage this past winter, just six weeks out from unveiling his United States Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, the first time an Indigenous artist has represented America with a solo show at the illustrious affair. He was not holed up in a New York City studio but splayed out in an enormous converted schoolhouse in Hudson, an Upstate outpost that has been his home since 2012. His art for the Venice show had already shipped, but his team of some 20 studio assistants was occupied with works in various stages of creation: radiant paintings, dynamic sculptures, glamorous costumes, and dazzling ornamentation based in beads.

However far removed from his early years, it had not been all that long since a younger Gibson wandered around the Biennale wondering what might lie ahead of him. “As a struggling young artist in New York City, you don’t know how to know if anyone even cares. I had been to the Biennale when I was in grad school, but this was my first time there with any access to anything, and it was really important to feel included,” he recalled of that 2007 trip.

Kathleen Ash-Milby, a Navajo curator who was also then on the rise, had invited Gibson to Venice to see an event she organized via the NMAI for Edgar Heap of Birds (Cheyenne and Arapaho), an artist 17 years Gibson’s senior. “I remember Edgar naming the Indigenous people who had died while traveling in Europe on Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show,” Gibson said of the cowboys-and-Indians spectacle that toured overseas around the turn of the 20th century. “That was very significant for me.”

An empty pedestal populated by Indigenous people invited by Jeffrey Gibson to take a place of tribute.
Jeffrey Gibson: They Come From Fire, 2022, at the Portland Art Museum.

He also remembered meeting other Indigenous artists who would become allies and, especially, forging an important bond with Ash-Milby, who would play an important role in his being awarded the US Pavilion close to two decades later. Ash-Milby said she recalled some wild speculative dreaming about such a fate, “which at the time seemed like an insane idea.”

Gibson, for his part, remembered appreciating the provocation inherent in Edgar Heap of Birds’s presentation, and feeling curious about what might happen if even more change ever came: “I think we both kind of felt like, Is this the beginning of something—something that hasn’t happened?”

GIBSON WAS BORN IN 1972 in Colorado Springs, Colorado, but grew up as a citizen of the world. With extended family in Mississippi and Oklahoma, he moved around while his father worked different jobs as a civil engineer for the US Department of Defense. He lived in Germany before elementary school and then spent time in New Jersey before relocating in his early teens to South Korea in 1985.

“Korea was impactful for me, partially because I was paying attention more independently to popular culture as it was being funneled abroad,” Gibson said. “This is when MTV was big, and there was street culture and an art scene in New York City that was being shown through music and fashion. There was one hour of MTV at midnight, and we would all talk about it, because we were jonesing.”

Formative discoveries at the time included Culture Club and Wham!, two pop acts that signaled an interest in music and identification with queer culture that figure in his art decades later. Other discoveries helped develop a capacity for cultural versatility, then and now. “When I was a kid, I romantically identified as a nomad,” Gibson said. “Living abroad and being American was an empowered and privileged place to be. But when I would come back to the US, I would be reminded that I was a person of color, and that we didn’t have as much money as it felt like we had when we were abroad. What I would bring back with me was a sense that I had traveled and seen other things. It made me feel like I knew there was a huge world. Being aware of other cultures certainly helped inform my general aesthetic and understanding of difference.”

A very colorful museum room with striped colored walls and beaded bird sculptures on pedestals, with a couple paintings in the background.
View of the exhibition “The Body Electric,” 2022, at SITE Sante Fe.

While living overseas, Gibson returned to the US regularly, around once or twice a year, to visit relatives—and commune with histories and heritages that figured in his Indigenous identity. “My experience is a 20th-century Native American experience, and the idea that there’s any line between what is or isn’t a ‘Native American experience’ is blurry,” he said. “It’s problematic when we think about Native American heritages, especially in the 20th century, because they’re all so unique.”

Poverty and racism were issues for both the Choctaw and Cherokee sides of his family, but their circumstances differed significantly—and developed differently over time. In Mississippi, the longtime chief of the Choctaw tribe during Gibson’s childhood devised an economic plan that brought factory work and financial stability to the area. “By the ’90s, the tribe was one of the largest employers in the state, and it had a surplus of employment beyond our tribal population,” Gibson said. “So that’s the story of the Choctaw people, in addition to what we could talk about in terms of tribal dances, ribbon shirts, basket weaving, and the symbolism that exists there.”

In Oklahoma, where the Cherokee part of his family resided, Christianity played a role in Native American culture that clashed in certain ways with traditions that had been handed down over centuries. “Within both sides of my family—in Oklahoma and Mississippi—there were people who identified as Christian and others who continued traditional spiritual practices. I had uncles who continued doing traditional dancing and a grandmother and grandfather who established Southern Baptist churches.”

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A beaded bust in many colors with jingle-dress jingles on its shoulders.
Jeffrey Gibson: Be Some Body, 2024.

During visits to America, Gibson’s relationship with the various facets of his family complicated any easy answer to the question of how closely he identified as Indigenous. “It’s always been difficult for me to distinguish how much I am a part of a community,” he said. “I was always embraced, and because I would leave and go to Korea didn’t make me any less Choctaw. Wherever that line is, comes more from an external perspective. We never stopped being Choctaw or Cherokee. If anything, I think the subject is more how we quantify how those communities were shifting, decade by decade, throughout the entire 20th century. And that’s just for those two tribes—there are other tribes who have different narratives.”

In any case, Gibson said his relationship with Indigeneity owes to what he grew up with and what he has honed on his own over time. “I have never lived among a Native community where everyone around me was Native all the time, seven days a week,” he said. “But I also refuse to let anyone make me feel that my leaving the reservation makes me less Choctaw. It’s just not that simple.”

GIBSON WAS TRAINED AS A PAINTER, but his canvases—vibrant and geometric, with mesmerizingly colored patterns and bits of text he borrows from sources including pop songs, poems, and historical records—have increasingly become just one component of his shows. His work for the US Pavilion in Venice includes 11 paintings, nine sculptures, eight flags, two murals, and one video installation. A key feature of much of his art, including the paintings, is beadwork that glistens and gleams by way of handicraft as fine as that in haute couture.

Gibson’s facility with materials traces back to his university years in Chicago, where he moved in 1992to study at the Art Institute. The next year, he took a side job at the Field Museum of Natural History as a research assistant working with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which since 1990 has provided for the protection and return of Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony. His work related to the legislation, which has grown in significance in recent years, involved processing items in the museum’s collection and showing them to tribal delegations that came through.

“Sometimes we had protocols to follow, but we didn’t always even know exactly what an object was, which brought up a lot of questions,” Gibson said. “Even though something may have had a record that said it was voluntarily sold, we would look back and see that it was sold under duress, or that the person who sold it was not necessarily in a position to do so. There were many things that were ‘collected’—or stolen—and there were things that should not be shared about what an object was or what it was used for.”

A burnt-orange painting with colored discs and a beaded necklace affixed to the canvas over top a portrait image of an Indigenous man.
Jeffrey Gibson: Boneta, Comanche, 2021.

One such object was a prayer bundle, a parcel filled with spiritually significant contents that had been secreted away and wrapped in cloth or other material. “The only person who knows how to use what’s inside a prayer bundle is someone who’s been raised within ceremony to understand what it is and what to do with it,” Gibson said. “Many prayer bundles had been disassembled, and this was horrific to people who think they are never meant to be seen.” Another example was a stick that had seemed to some museum staffers to be part of a game but turned out to be imbued with other qualities. “Somebody came in and said, ‘No, you must cover that up immediately!’ It literally went from being one thing to another.”

Gibson’s work at the museum taught him about what he did and did not know, and he was energized by both. “NAGPRA is an amazing and hard-won law,” he said, “but what it really taught me was the problems of intercultural translation, language, perception, even entire worldviews. We could look at any object and there are going to be differences in how we view it. That became really interesting to me.”

It also opened his eyes to materials other than paint, and roles for art that ventured beyond simple states of objecthood. He learned to sew in Chicago from a fellow Native American friend who vowed to make her own clothes, and he made a doll that wound up scrambling his value system. “It was a ragdoll figure of a blonde woman wearing a buckskin dress. The fabric I used for her body was a Southwest print,” he said, adding that inspiration had been provided by white-presenting women he’d seen at powwows wearing clothes that had clearly been bought for the occasion.

A man in a painter's smock putting a layer of paint on a canvas, in a very colorful studio.
Jeffrey Gibson in his studio.

A professor at the Art Institute liked the doll and “wanted to introduce me to people who could write about it or show it, but I just shut down so quickly,” Gibson said. “For me, at the time, it felt like much less of a responsibility to make an abstract painting about paint and put it out into the world. To make something that was actually a statement with a kind of critical perspective—I wasn’t ready for that.”

He was acquainting himself with different ways to work within and around tradition, however, and ways to question what exactly constitutes tradition in Indigenous cultures that are ever-changing. “I’ve always worked intuitively with different materials, based on my experience of working with historic collections and realizing all the innovations that stepped away from what I had been taught about ‘traditional’ materials,” he said. “Even things we think of as traditional, like beads, replaced other traditions. We are innovators—this is what we do. We look around and try to think about how we can make materials into something that serves our culture or serves our community. I started to see that way of thinking as a tradition in and of itself.”

“JEFFREY SHOWS THAT ONE of the most important things about contemporary Indigenous culture is that it has a specific cultural and material inheritance, but its cultural inheritance is expressed through its materials,” said Candice Hopkins (Carcross/Tagish First Nation), a curator who first showed Gibson’s work in a show about Indigenous futurism in 2011 and, two years later, in “Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art,” an exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada that has been credited with reshaping studies of contemporary Indigenous art. For the latter show, Gibson made two paintings on elk hide that had been treated via a process that has been largely lost to history: brain tanning.

“A lot of commercial hide production is just that—very commercialized,” Gibson said. “The animals aren’t treated with a great life. They’re not killed in a humane way. In the belief system, there are histories that are inherent to hides, and I knew I wanted a hide with a different narrative.”

After some searching, he found a hunter in Montana who still practices the craft, which involves massaging the fatty matter of an animal’s brain into a hide to soften and preserve it. The hunter had killed an elk of the kind that Gibson wanted, but winter set in before he was able to tan it, so he buried the skin in the ground to freeze for the season with a plan to exhume it in the spring. As time ticked on, though, Gibson started to get anxious. “I had a deadline coming up and I was like, ‘I really need this hide!’ I felt like such a consumer,” he remembered. “Consumer thinking trains us that we can have things when we want them. But it was all part of the narrative, and I had to give in to it.”

A painting of colored vectors on a preserved elk hide.
Jeffrey Gibson: This Place I Know, 2013.

When he finally received the brain-tanned hides, he painted them with boldly colored diagonals that suggest a sort of abstract topography and titled them This Place I Know and Someone Great Is Gone (both 2013). “That taught me a lot about the material roots of Jeffrey’s practice and the honesty to materials that he brings forward,” Hopkins said. “Everything has a story to tell.” For his part, Gibson remembered discovering a sort of poetry in the process. “The idea behind brain tanning,” he said, “is to take the memory of the animal and put it back into the skin.”

For a 2019 residency at the New Museum in New York, Gibson learned a battery of new skills, and made his education part of the premise of an exhibition that evolved as his knowledge grew. “He talked about this thing that happens when he’s asked to do a project that is supposed to represent Indigeneity, even though it’s super-differentiated, as a generalist idea,” said Johanna Burton, who curated “The Anthropophagic Effect” as part of the New Museum’s department of education and public engagement (she is now director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles). “He was excited about the fact that he had to learn some of the skills he wanted to use the same way that anybody else would.”

With the idea of an Indigenous atelier in mind, Gibson brought artist Kelly Church (Pottawatomi/Ottawa/Ojibwe) from Michigan to New York to teach him and his studio staff crafts that had been practiced by Indigenous people long before the arrival of European settlers. One such craft, birchbark biting (what the Northwestern Ontario Ojibwe call mazinashkwemaganjigan), involves making patterns in tree coverings by biting into them and exposing layers and fissures within. “It’s all in the way you fold the bark and then bite it, and birchbark pieces would become patterns for embroidery and, eventually, beadwork,” Gibson said. “That came at a time when I was thinking about how Native people think about abstraction differently. It’s in many ways abstract, but it’s also so specific to the person who did the biting.”

Other newly acquired skills included porcupine quillwork and river cane basket weaving, which were useful in creating garments that voguing dancers wore in performances that activated the artworks. Gibson also made helmets with the basket weaving process, transforming it to his own ends. “It’s not Choctaw tradition to make helmets, but it is Choctaw tradition to make river cane baskets,” he said. “My goal was never to recreate what was made previously. I didn’t want to learn how to make baskets—I wanted to learn the technology of making a basket, so that I could then make sculpture.”

A helmet made by way of basket-weaving techniques, in white against a red, black, and white patterned background.
Sculpture in “The Anthropophagic Effect,” 2019, at the New Museum, New York.

GIBSON’S RESOURCEFUL, RESILIENT WORK for the US Pavilion in Venice draws on his many modes of art-making that commune with traditions while also revising and redefining them in his own terms. Color is in high supply, as are allusions to struggle and perseverance. “He has been addressing the same kind of problems in different ways while looking at, respecting, and honoring the Native experience,” said Ash-Milby, the curator who has worked with Gibson from the start of his career. “Part of that is acknowledging that there have been challenges and pain. That’s part of what we carry and who we are today.”

When the idea arose to submit a proposal for the Venice Biennale, Gibson turned to a trio of supporters for help: Ash-Milby, currently the curator of Native American art at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon; Louis Grachos, who presented a wide-ranging survey titled “The Body Electric” at SITE Sante Fe in 2022; and Abigail Winograd, an independent curator who worked with Gibson on a 2021 exhibition related to the MacArthur Fellowship Program (Gibson won a prestigious “genius grant” in 2019).

For the show with Winograd, titled “Sweet Bitter Love,” Gibson made paintings in response to stereotypical late 19th- and early 20th-century portraits of Indigenous people in the collection of Chicago’s Newberry Library, and exhibited accession cards from the Field Museum, where he had worked while a student. In his paintings, Gibson aimed to open up the historical portraits by riffing and remixing them in a manner that made them personal to him and his place in time. Part of that included attaching vintage objects—beaded barrettes, found pins, decorated belts—that he collects in part as a tribute to unnamed artists who contribute to culture in a multitude of ways.

“We know the names of the sitters in paintings, but with vintage objects, oftentimes we don’t know the names of the people who made them,” Gibson said. “Those objects are also not valued, and we don’t know how they were acquired. The collective Native American experience in the US is shaped by the unnamed and the unknown, by all of these gaps and exclusions and erasures. That’s what I wanted those pieces to speak to.”

Such vintage finds figure in many of his Venice works. A sculptural bust titled Be Some Body (2024) is affixed with a button that bears the message IF WE SETTLE FOR WHAT THEY’RE GIVING US, WE DESERVE WHAT WE GET. A painting in which diamond-shaped patterns seem to recede and pulse out into open space, WE WILL BE KNOWN FOREVER BY THE TRACKS WE LEAVE (2024) flaunts a belt buckle and bolo tie, as well as a bag embellished with lane-stitch beadwork.

A colorful painting with diamond shapes and abstract patterning around the words in the work's title.
Jeffrey Gibson: WE WILL BE KNOWN FOREVER BY THE TRACKS WE LEAVE, 2024.

Some of the work winds back to familiar forms. The hanging sculpture WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS TO BE SELF-EVIDENT (2024)—elaborately beaded and adorned with fringe that spills onto the floor in the black, white, yellow, and red colors of the medicine wheel—revisits a series of punching bag pieces that Gibson started working on in 2010, when he found a form that evoked the anger he felt around matters of
race, class, and bodily disconnection. An interactive sculpture that shares its title with that of Gibson’s pavilion as a whole—the space in which to place me (2024)—echoes a 2022 project for which he invited Indigenous people to populate empty monument pedestals in front of the Portland Art Museum.

Activation is a key component of Gibson’s practice, in which performance and pedagogy play pivotal roles. In June the Pavilion will host the Venice Indigenous Arts School, a series of public programs focused on key terminology and concepts in Indigenous arts, arranged by the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. “An example would be various terms for weather that take into consideration how weather affects the whole process of making art and putting it out there,” said Mario A. Caro, director of the Institute’s studio arts MFA program, who organized the event. “Weather informs the ways in which traditional materials would be gathered and processed. And by ‘weather,’ we don’t just mean ecology or environmental issues—weather really talks about a relation between the people and the land.” Another part of the program, in October, will explore connections between Indigenous cultures in North America and around the world, in partnership with Bard College, where Gibson teaches.

With a global audience set to engage his work at the Venice Biennale, Gibson said he had charged himself with continuing to position his own past, present, and future in relation to a prism of Indigenous histories and ideas. The task has been daunting, he said. But it is also catalyzing in ways he hopes will carry over. “I don’t identify as a frontline activist,” Gibson said. “But we are all politicized for how we are seen. We are also advocating for our political selves, and those political selves are rooted in our ancestry and our heritages.”

A multi-colored beaded bird sculpture.
Jeffrey Gibson: if there is no struggle there is no progress, 2024.

When looking over images of his Venice works in his schoolhouse studio a few months back, Gibson paused at a large bird sculpture with rainbow-colored plumage rendered in a riotous mix of materials including glass beads, rose quartz, and metallic sequins. Its title is if there is no struggle there is no progress (2024), a quotation from a speech by Frederick Douglass, and it is one of two such birds in the Pavilion.

“They’re based in the Tuscarora tradition of beaded whimsies,” Gibson said. “The bird was one of the primary forms they used to try to appeal to Victorian tastes, but they were seen as neither Native enough nor not-Native enough. I encountered them at the Field Museum and felt very much akin to them because they’re somewhere in between all these different kinds of cultural traditions. That’s how the birds work.”  

This article appears under the title “Hide and Seek” in the Summer 2024 Icons issue, pp. 56–63.

Source: artnews.com

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