Though the pandemic’s grip is starting to loosen, and relief finally feels within reach, this past year has underscored our country’s long history of violence, new examples of which serve as reminders of older ones. Among them are the myriad atrocities perpetuated against Indigenous people in what we now call America (and beyond), individuals whose experiences are to this day too often distorted or left untold.
Lately, though, there have been some hard-won gains on that front, from professional sports teams finally changing their names to the Metropolitan Museum of Art hiring Patricia Marroquin Norby as its first curator of Native American Art. It is not necessarily the job of the artist to shine a light where others have not, but self-expression — especially that of individuals who, whether because of their race, gender, sexuality or any other marker of identity, some might seek to deny — can be an inherently radical act, one to which attention should be paid. For this story, we asked 10 queer Indigenous talents from different parts of North America to share one of their artworks and talk about its genesis, and about their practice at large. Like the selections themselves, the conversations, which touched on materials, color schemes, gender fluidity, decolonization, oral history and more, were testaments to the strength — and beauty — of a multiplicity of voices.
Jeffrey Gibson, 49, based in Hudson, N.Y.
Part of my practice revolves around the tension between the handmade and perfectly measured geometry. I love formal abstraction and what appears to be controlled. Pieces of vintage beadwork and textiles counter this because of their materiality and the presence of a previous history. The materials and color in my work position viewers to see it through the lens of Native American histories and aesthetics. In pow wow culture, some dancers are meant to be highly visible in the arena, and I apply a similar kind of thinking to my practice. I opt for fluorescence or really high contrasts. But there are plenty of other references, too, everything from punk rock, disco, R&B, Op Art, the Pattern and Decoration movement and various fashion histories. I’m creating a hybrid aesthetic that reflects my own narrative.
I made this painting last year as part of a larger body of work recently shown at Roberts Projects in Los Angeles. The idea of a chosen family is often referred to in the L.G.B.T.Q.Q.I.P.2S.A.A. community — and it’s also very personal to me. My husband and I have two amazing children whom we adopted, and that experience has radically shaped our perspective on family and extended family. Another important element of the work is its focus on pronoun usage as it relates to gender and to queerness. Culturally, the popular acceptance of self-identified pronouns is really one of the biggest changes we’ve made in a long time. It allows people to be more open and fluid, but also more specific, which relates to how I think about Indigenous communities. We’re often referred to as one collective Native American group, but in reality there are hundreds of tribes — I’m both Choctaw and Cherokee. The perceptions about Indigenous individuals and communities would broaden and be more supportive if each of us were able to identify more specifically, to self-identify.