Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Modern totems

all images, unless otherwise noted, courtesy the author

I was in Washington in mid-July to participate on an NEA panel (doing "the people's work," as Kevin says), and had the chance to see lots of art in different museums. New Orleans artist Ron Bechet and I got our exercise by running to and from the Mall every day at lunch, seeing the National Gallery West, the National Museum of African Arts and the Hirshhorn Museum. It was great to share the pleasure of being in big buildings full of cultural richness from around the world.

On Friday, after the panel, I walked to the National Museum of American Indian that featured an exhibition of the artist Fritz Scholder (1937-2005). I'm not a fan of Scholder's work--although much of what I read makes me understand how his work broke through the cliches of "native" art--but I was struck by his obelisk from 1987, somewhat hidden in the garden outside the museum.

This work seemed to throw out a real challenge to the culture that has suppressed Native peoples in the US, represented by the thrusting Washington Monument nearby. (Begun in 1848, the Washington Monument was intended to be the largest structure on earth. Construction halted during the Civil War, but was finally completed in 1885.) That Americans would commemorate their new republic with a cultural form borrowed from an ancient, "pagan" culture is interesting--why not borrow the indigenous American form of a totem?

Fritz Scholder Obelisk, 1987, bronze, detail bottom

Unfortunately, however, Scholder's obelisk also looks Egyptian, influenced, no doubt, by the time he spent in Egypt. I never found a didactic panel that explained the work. The Museum missed the opportunity to toss out a social bomb in the form of an art object, but they are right to avoid the kind of controversies caused when Museums look at history through different eyes.

The Native American artist who does artistically bridge the death-defying gap between white and Native cultures is Brad Kahlhamer. His obelisk, Waqui Totem, 2007, below, is sharp edged, sarcastic and penetrating. Kahlhamer embraces and challenges both Western and indigenous artistic forms, creating vibrant, sex-death-and-rock 'n roll odes to finding identity and spirituality in contemporary America.

images courtesy of Brad Kahlhamer

Kahlhamer's totem was built of cardboard then cast in that uber-art material bronze. It's a bird of prey / nightmare head, tree limbs stripped of leaves by rapacious industry and a provisional base suggestive of the persistence of the ancient myths of Native spiritual systems.

Kahlhamer's totem would be a spectacular apparition on the mall in honor of the millions of Native peoples who lived in North America upon first contact. His work reclaims not only the physical shape of Native American art, but some of its psychic space, too. This work would be a testament to the persistence of indigenous peoples and their evolving cultures long lain dormant underneath the self-aggrandizing myths of the American conquest of a wild but empty paradise.

I think the issue of internal diaspora or exile is a compelling and urgent one for Native artists, and deserves much broader discussion in the art world.

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