HomeLife StyleRepresenting the U.S. and Critiquing It in a Psychedelic Rainbow

Representing the U.S. and Critiquing It in a Psychedelic Rainbow

People in Venice might hear the jingle dress dancers before they see them. On April 18, some 26 intertribal Native American dancers and singers from Oklahoma and Colorado will make their way through the winding streets and canals of the Italian city. Wearing brightly colored shawls, beaded yokes and dresses decorated with the metal cones that give the dance its distinctive cshh cshh rattling sound, they’ll make their way to the Giardini, one of the primary sites of the Venice Biennale. There, they’ll climb atop and surround a large red sculpture composed of pedestals of different heights and perform.

The jingle dress dance, which originated with the Ojibwe people of North America in the early 20th century, typically takes place at powwows. In Venice, it will inaugurate the exhibition in the United States Pavilion on April 20. Titled “the space in which to place me,” the show is a mini-survey of the rapturous art of the queer Choctaw and Cherokee artist Jeffrey Gibson. Flags, paintings, sculptures and a video envelop and fill the stately building with proliferating geometric patterns, intricate beadwork, evocative text, a psychedelic overdose of color and political references to Indigenous and broader American histories.

“How do I relate to the United States?” mused Gibson, 52, who in conversation slips effortlessly between earnestness and flashes of playful, dry wit. It was late December, and we were sitting in a room in his upstate New York studio whose nondescript furniture was dotted with evidence of ongoing work on Venice: a maquette here, paint samples there, a test flag folded loosely in a chair. The deadline for finishing nearly two dozen artworks was about a month away, but Gibson was calm — at least outwardly so — as he showed me images and the pieces in progress.

“I have a complicated relationship with the United States,” he said. His ancestors were among the Native Americans forcibly displaced by the federal government. Both his parents came from poverty and went to boarding schools, where Native children were frequently abused. As his studio manager zoomed in on a digital image of a painting, I could see a large block of text surrounded by angular, radiating lines. Gibson read the title: “The returned male student far too frequently goes back to the reservation and falls into the old custom of letting his hair grow long.”

The chilling line came from a 1902 letter written by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to a school superintendent in California about the need to assimilate Native students returning home from boarding schools. Once he found it, Gibson decided that all three busts he was working on for the Biennale should have prominent hair: a beaded mullet; long, flowing locks made from ribbon; and an elaborately-styled shawl-fringe “do.” The choice represents one of his artistic strengths: taking a point of pain and turning it into a kind of celebration, without losing its critical edge.

The Venice project aims to interweave a Native American narrative with other histories of struggle and freedom. Its title comes from a poem by the Oglala Lakota writer Layli Long Soldier. “‘The space in which to place me’ seemed like this idea of both decentralizing things and making things central that are oftentimes on the periphery,” Gibson said. That describes not only his approach to the show, but his selection by organizers for the State Department for one of art’s highest honors.

Gibson is the first Native artist to represent the U.S. with a solo exhibition in the 94 years that this country has had a pavilion. The project is co-commissioned by Kathleen Ash-Milby, curator of Native American art at the Portland Art Museum; Abigail Winograd, an independent curator; and Louis Grachos, the director of SITE Santa Fe. (Ash-Milby and Winograd are the curators.)

“Jeffrey and I have been talking about the biennale since we were there together for the first time in 2007,” Ash-Milby, who is Navajo, recalled. “It didn’t feel attainable at the time. It felt like a fantasy.”

If Gibson’s selection is belated, it also comes at a moment when his career has reached a kind of fever pitch: In addition to Venice, a book he conceived and edited, “An Indigenous Present,” came out last summer, and two major new projects for him — the facade commission for the Metropolitan Museum of Art and an exhibition at Mass MoCA — have recently been announced.

Today, Gibson is well established, with three galleries representing him and a 14-person team — increased to 20 for Venice — helping to execute his ideas. Most of that work takes place in a turn-of-the-century brick schoolhouse just outside of Hudson; Gibson bought it in 2012 and began converting it into a 14,000-square-foot studio. (He also recently acquired a nearby barn.)

On my visit, the schoolhouse studio felt like an intriguing combination of its past and current lives. Spaces were dedicated to different mediums, like the painting gym or a room where intense beading was underway. The exchanges between Gibson and his staff were a collegial banter. (“Is it too subtle?” he sometimes asks his production manager about his characteristically loud artworks.)

“I’m kind of enamored by the challenges of practicing democracy,” he told me, inadvertently summarizing the ethos of the studio.

The budget for Gibson’s exhibition is $5.8 million, but as reported by The New York Times, the federal government only provided $375,000. The team had to work hard to fill that gap — most notably, the Ford Foundation gave $1.1 million and the Mellon Foundation, $1 million. Further proceeds — including, unusually, money from the direct sale of a $,7500 limited-edition cashmere blanket through Sotheby’s — will support the catalog, educational resources and public programming like a scholarly convening in October.

Gibson’s momentum has come amid a broader wave of mainstream institutions paying heightened attention to Indigenous artists, including Sky Hopinka, Nicholas Galanin and Rose B. Simpson. Despite the symbolic importance of Gibson’s project, it’s not the first time a Native artist has shown in the Venice Biennale, thanks to collateral exhibitions.

In fact, this isn’t even the first time a Native artist will exhibit inside the U.S. Pavilion. In 1932 the American presentation was a group exhibition that included George Bellows, Ernest L. Blumenschein, and more than a dozen Indigenous artists, whose works were concentrated in a single gallery. Pottery, jewelry and textiles by mostly unnamed makers shared space with Pueblo paintings by Ma Pe Wi, Tonita Peña, Fred Kabotie, and others.

The art historian Jessica L. Horton has argued that the 1932 show was an attempt to disseminate American “aesthetic nationalism” that failed, in part, because the Native artworks didn’t fit the organizers’ Modernist framework. Nearly a century later, Gibson is using his turn to critically examine myths of American nationhood. He said he began by looking at the country’s founding documents, which led him to the constitutional amendments, and from there to social and political movements. “I wanted to map out some moments in American history when there is this real promise of equality, liberty and justice and then think about what those terms mean,” he said.

These ideas appear in direct but not didactic ways. Phrases from his research appear on objects — for example, “We hold these truths to be self-evident” — appear on objects like punching bags in the pavilion’s red-painted rotunda. A towering figure with a ceramic head and a body of rainbow fringe wears a garment that says, in beadwork, “We want to be free.” Additional text on its side references the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 — calling attention to the centennial of the law that finally granted U.S. citizenship to Native Americans.

Although Gibson’s artworks have political valences, they also contain many layers of form and meaning. The towering figures, for instance, are ancestral spirits. The punching bags began when he was working with a trainer to process anger — following his therapist’s suggestion.

The text in the paintings is rendered in what his studio calls the “Gibson alphabet,” close, angular letterforms that take effort to discern. As if all that weren’t enough, Gibson has added vintage beaded Native objects to some of the paintings, mounting them atop trippy geometric patterns that reference Indigenous abstraction. And everything, of course, is a riot of color (one painting contains 162 shades). It’s part of his critique: a response to Western art history’s insistence on the primacy of whiteness and the consequent devaluing of certain cultures, including Native American and queer ones.

“We’ve been dismissed as garish and too much, because of our use of color,” Gibson said. He recalled his professors in the 1990s at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he received his B.F.A., constantly questioning his polychrome choices. Such questioning wasn’t innocent; it implied that his art looked “gaudy, trashy, kitschy and campy.” It took him decades to embrace the abundance of color for which he’s now known.

“There are very few artists I can think of that have such a sophisticated understanding of color,” Grachos, the co-commissioner, said.

Gibson’s aesthetic is inspired by the traditional Native objects that filled his home growing up and, equally, by queer culture and nightlife, which offered him a sense of freedom and safety he never felt entirely — and still doesn’t — in the Native communities where his relatives lived.

His father worked as a civil engineer for the Department of Defense, which kept the family moving frequently, from North Carolina and New Jersey to Germany and South Korea. By 13, Gibson was clubbing with friends in Seoul — a pastime he continued as he came out. His work now often includes song lyrics, and the performance artist and nightclub icon Leigh Bowery, who died in 1994, is a touchstone. As a teenager, Gibson would glimpse the downtown New York scene in Interview magazine and think, “Oh my gosh, that’s where I have to get to.” (He still says, “Oh my gosh.”)

His route was circuitous. While in college in Chicago, he worked at the Field Museum on the implementation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. He liaised with tribal delegates who came to look at Indigenous objects in the collection. The experience taught him lessons about language and faith that he struggled to translate into his art. “How do I make a painting about this?” he asked himself often. “It was impossible.”

After college, Gibson wanted to teach art on the Choctaw reservation but was gently rebuffed by the chief, who encouraged him to pursue his calling out in the world instead. “This was somebody giving me permission to not fulfill this definition of being Native, but saying, You need to go and carry us with you. That is also being a Choctaw person,” Gibson recalled. Crucially, the Choctaw Nation paid for him to attend graduate school at London’s Royal College of Art. While there, he made his first garment — a form that would later become a staple of his practice.

Gibson received his master’s in 1998 — the same year he met his husband, the artist Rune Olsen, in London. The two married 14 months later in Norway, where Olsen is from, and then moved to New York. Gibson worked long hours at Macy’s and Ikea while experiencing what he called “a relentless loop of disappointment” as a struggling artist, especially a Native one. At one point, in an act of desperation, he took some of his canvases to a laundromat and put them through the washer and dryer.

But he also found community, both among young artists in Brooklyn and at the American Indian Community House in Manhattan, where he had his first New York solo show in 2005. Titled “Indigenous Anomaly,” it featured glowing, abstracted landscape paintings, and was curated by Ash-Milby. “Every single person I had heard of who was a Native artist had shown there,” Gibson said of the house. “It felt like the perfect place for me to do an exhibition.”

That same year, he received a Creative Capital grant that helped fund a series of trips he took around the country to visit Native makers and commission objects like silver engravings and drums from them. He incorporated those into his 2012 exhibition “one becomes the other” at the nonprofit Participant Inc. The show was a breakthrough: It set him on a course of queering and combining Western and Indigenous art traditions into playful and evocative hybrid forms. The positive reception — he was picked up by a commercial gallery for the first time — made him feel as though his audience was finally starting to understand his intentions.

“When I’m thinking about objects made by Native people, historically, the circumstances they were living in, it’s counterintuitive to think that the thing to do would have been to make something beautiful. I realized they made spaces of freedom,” he said, his eyes filling with tears. It was our second meeting, this time at his New York gallery, Sikkema Jenkins & Co., in February. The works for Venice had all left the studio that day, and Gibson was exhausted and emotional. It made his humor sharper and his reflections more vulnerable. “So if I can apply that to my own work, it’s trying to make a space for freedom,” he continued.

For Gibson, that effort isn’t — can’t be — solely personal; it extends outward to other people. Sometimes this manifests in his studio or through collaboration, with the jingle dress dancers at the Biennale or more experimental practitioners like the White Mountain Apache musician Laura Ortman. Other times it’s a subtler invitation to the public, as with the Venice sculpture made of pedestals, on which visitors can climb and sit.

“I’ve started to think of the pavilion as a machine people will enter and leave changed,” said Winograd, the co-commissioner. “We’re creating a space of radical inclusivity — and as much as that’s connected to Jeffrey’s experience, it’s also a gesture to everyone who has ever felt outside of a normative identity.”

That, in the end, is the message of Gibson’s art: Everything is multifaceted. His over-the-top aesthetic is a joyful revolt against the reductiveness of fixed categories and the pressure he’s felt, both externally and internally, to always show up on behalf of Native Americans.

“I look back at the amount of ambition and energy I’ve put into being everywhere, and I realized that it’s come from wanting to close this gap on a lack of representation,” he said. Turning his thoughts to life after the Biennale, he said, “I want to open up to another degree of experimentation. I want to get back into an intuitive place where I’m speaking for myself.”

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