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Review: Wendy Red Star in Portland Art Museum

Tuesday, October 28, 2014


Owing to its juxtaposition of reproduced photographs of Native American chiefs, artworks, and historical artifacts – the current exhibition for the APEX series in the Portland Art Museum does not immediately reveal itself as contemporary. 

However, that is exactly what it is, and this confusion is crucial to its efforts to challenge the politics of museum display and the representation of Native Americans in the general consciousness and popular culture. The artist, Wendy Red Star, is a Native Crow woman who grew up on the Crow Reservation in south-central Montana, and her experience and background deeply inform her artwrk.  Her work in the past has dealt with the representation of Native peoples (especially Crow), stereotype, Native material culture and its commodification, and the place of Native history and art within the museum setting.      

This particular exhibition centers around the 1880 Crow Peace Delegation, in which six Crow leaders traveled to Washington D.C. and were pressured into a treaty that would cede a large portion of their tribal lands to the United States Government.  Several photographs were taken, of the group as a whole and of all the individuals, and these photographs have become widely known.  The most famous is the image of Chief Medicine Crow (Peelatchiwaaxpáash), and in the years since its taking, it has become iconic, used over and over again to represent the stereotypical Indian.  

Reclaiming and Redefining 

Throughout this exhibition, there are repeated images of Medicine Crow and the other men – Old Crow, Long Elk, Plenty Coups, Two Belly, and Pretty Eagle.  The majority of these digitally reproduced images have been manipulated by Red Star in different ways.  Most striking is a colorful tapestry that she has made that weaves together recreations of Medicine Crow’s photo found on Google Image search along with the two iconic portraits largest and in the center.  But in these versions, Red Star’s face has been superimposed where Medicine Crow’s once was.  On a separate wall is a line of all the individual portraits, digitally reprinted in black and white.  On top of each one, Red Star has scrawled notes in red ink, and these notes identify parts of the images, give information about and quotes from the men in each one, and sometimes link them to Red Star herself.  In the center of the room is a traditional hide Crow outfit that Red Star found in the Portland Art Museum’s collection.      

Through all this artwork, Red Star makes a powerful move to reclaim her own history.  The dissemination of Medicine Crow’s image as the stereotypical Native American has allowed the white men who took the photograph and stole his land to write his history for him.  Native voices have historically been silenced, unable to explain or even place their own narrative within the larger society.  Through her manipulation of Medicine Crow and the other men’s images, Red Star reclaims them, and is additionally able to reclaim her own history and identity in doing so.  The act is so much more than a rejection of stereotypes – it is a deliberate act to take authority, to complicate authority.  By placing her own face on Medicine Crow’s body in the tapestry, she is not only inserting herself into the painful history and stereotype of Native people, but she is taking back and redefining for herself how she wants to be represented.  A similar thing is happening with the portraits that have been exploited in the years since they were originally taken: with corrective red ink, Red Star humanizes them, and takes the authority to rewrite her own and their histories.    

In Zoo Softies (2014), Red Star has digitally reproduced Medicine Crow’s ledger drawings from the 1880 trip to Washington D.C.  Among them are drawings of animals from his visit to a zoo that were labeled in English by a white clerk at the Crow Reservation.  Red Star sent the designs to a company in Australia that turns children’s drawings into stuffed toys, and these toys are displayed above the drawings in the exhibition. A playfully dark and poignant nod to the commodification of Native culture, these softies also serve to reclaim images of Native Americans in art, consumer culture, and craft culture.  

Reversing and Repairing 

There is also a striking reparative dimension to her work.  In Members of the 1880 Crow Peace Delegation (2014), there are many small digitally printed images of the same photographs mentioned before – only this time they have been colored in and scribbled over with colorful crayon and marker by Red Star and her seven-year-old daughter, Beatrice Red Star Fletcher.  This innocent act of coloring in their figures is an act of creation, of definition.  Through the involvement of Beatrice, Red Star is working generationally, giving her young daughter the authority to rework the history of her ancestors, and define it for herself however she sees fit.  There is a reversal happening in order to take ownership of history – whereas Medicine Crow’s drawings were labeled by a white man, his photos taken by his oppressors, Wendy Red Star and her daughter also label and draw on the photos, remake the zoo animal drawings in their original form, and effectively reclaim them.  

This all comes to a head with the traditional hide outfit in the center of the exhibition.  By including this item found in the Museum’s own collection along with the historical photographs and her own artwork, Red Star is critiquing the ways in which Native art (from ancient to contemporary) is often displayed in the museum setting in the form of anthropological exhibits, with disparate time periods lumped together, opposed to and outside of the art exhibits, without the respect the Western art canon is afforded.  She is also doubly critiquing the very institution she is exhibiting in – revealing their hand in the collection of Native artifacts, questioning who owns history, and who gets to define Native peoples.  By taking authority and displaying the clothing on her own terms, alongside her own contemporary work, Red Star places native voices in the museum setting as contemporary equals. 

Wendy Red Star is open through Dec. 7 at APEX in the Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park Ave., Portland, OR 97205, Tues-Sun, 10 AM – 5 PM, and Thu/Fri 10 AM – 8 PM. 


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