Laugh until it hurts 

Art between worlds in MAM’s Migrations

A circle dominates “Commodity I,” a print by Native American artist Tom Jones of the Ho-Chunk Nation. The circle is clearly ceremonial; it’s depicted wrapped in textured leather and marked at even intervals around its circumference with large beads from which adornments dangle by string.

Rather than feathers or something else typical of Native American ceremonial objects, commodity coupons dangle from the ceremonial circle. These weekly ration cards marked in red for “Winnebago Indians” are authentic—found objects that artist Jones incorporated into his lithographic print, traditionally a two-dimensional art form taking on a third dimension with the found objects’ inclusion.

The ration cards sully a traditional object, replacing sacred with mundane—just as the sacred sources of food and the rituals of engaging with its harvest were replaced with commodity groceries. The artist’s darkly comic intent further manifests in the monotone can of “Beef with juices” reproduced at the circle’s center. Text printed beneath the can and within the circle addresses the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes among Native Americans and the restorative properties of exercise. The cynical rearrangement of traditional imagery resolves into an exhortation to reclaim healthy lifestyles.

Jones’ “Commodity I” appears in Migrations, a traveling exhibition of lithography that began a 10-week run at the Missoula Art Museum Wednesday, Aug. 22. Sponsored by the University of New Mexico’s Tamarind Institute, founded to promote lithography as an art form, the exhibit showcases the work of Native American artists—a focus MAM curator Stephen Glueckert says has long been characteristic of Tamarind’s work.

“The Tamarind Institute is a very respected workshop by artists regardless of race,” says Glueckert, “but over the years what really has been remarkable is their commitment to Native American art.” In the case of the exhibition opening in Missoula, Tamarind sought a diversity of Native perspectives on the theme of migration.

Jones’ “Commodity I” is one such response. And his “Commodity II” takes a similarly biting approach by pairing an Indian maiden casting a come-hither look from the center of a Queen of Hearts playing card with the caption “Souvenirs for the Tourists” and other stereotypical images of Native Americans created for non-Natives by non-Natives. There is humor in the images, but also pain. Glueckert sees similarly poignant wit in many of Migrations’ offerings.

“Blood, ancestry, the ability to tell stories so that the stories are accurate and respectful of your elders. How can you go wrong with that formula?” says Glueckert. “And then in the mix is tourism, the influence of white culture on your culture, commodification, tourist dollars, producing things that tourists want. That’s a balancing act, and that’s a lot of pressure, and the only way you get through that is with a really amazing sense of humor.”

Another of the artists featured in Migrations, Star Wallowing Bull of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, White Earth Reservation, sees the same cutting humor in his own work. One of his pieces, “The Curious Crawler,” portrays a cartoonishly wide-eyed baby crawling though the detritus of childhood and neglect. Crayons and lettered blocks litter the floor along with mice and empty beer cans. A wall in the background conceals all but the feet of an adult prone on the kitchen floor; smoke pours from a pot on the stovetop.

“That’s a sad portrait but it’s also humorous at the same time,” says Wallowing Bull, “because I wanted to make the baby innocent having those big wide eyes. When people saw that at an exhibition…I had one friend cry about it and then the next thing you know there’s somebody laughing at it. It kind of goes both ways.”

“The Curious Crawler” illustrates a negative stereotype about alcoholism and Native Americans, however this was not foremost in Wallowing Bull’s mind when he created the piece, primarily because he doesn’t view it as statement about Native Americans.

“That’s reality,” says Wallowing Bull. “That’s what I went through. And I’m sure that’s happening up to this day on a lot of the reservations, but it’s not only with Indians. It’s people of all races in this country and this world that are going through similar situations. I’m not just referring to how hard life is for us Natives. I’m just drawing from what is my experience of life.”

In “My Three Sisters,” Wallowing Bull reconciles different strands of his life experience: his Native heritage and urban upbringing. Wallowing Bull grew up in urban Minneapolis, and is thoroughly a product of the city. In fact, he recalls, 11 months he spent in North Dakota’s remote Turtle Mountains were nearly intolerable. “It’s very isolated. I was very unhappy. There was nothing to do, nowhere to go. It was out in the middle of the woods.”

Still, imagery from those woods makes it into “My Three Sisters,” in which Wallowing Bull places cubist portraits of his siblings in the foreground and an array of objects from his heritage and upbringing in the background. In one corner stands a man wearing a top hat with a feather in it—a representation of Wallowing Bull’s father figure and the transition from traditional to urban life. Elsewhere, a rabbit creeps up on a postal box and teepees compete for skyline space with office towers.

The jumble is not disconcerting, integrated as it is in an artwork contemplating family and the hybrid sense of self derived from the diversity typical of many people’s experience in our time. Instead, “My Three Sisters” does something to explain how migration, while implying boundary crossing, has come to mean more than this alone in contemporary times. In a connected world, the place we live is not all that we know. People may not migrate physically from one place to another, Wallowing Bull says, but they can inhabit different mental spaces all at the same time.

“Of course, I think of myself as Native American but also at the same time I also think of myself as an American,” Wallowing Bull says. “I think like an American. I think like a human being. I’m not traditional by any means, but I am proud to be a Native American.

“I guess I don’t have any boundaries.”

Migrations is on display in the Lynda M. Frost Gallery of the Missoula Art Museum through Nov. 10.
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