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Reexamining narratives around Native American art at Brooklyn Museum exhibition

Scultpure "Dying Indian," c. 1904, Charles Cary Rumsey, with moccasins added by artist John Murie, with writing "I'm Gonna Run with Every Minute I Can Borrow." (Photos by Gabe Herman)

Native American artist Jeffrey Gibson’s work is part of a brand new exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum which examines misconceptions around Native art and biases by non-Native artists.

The Brooklyn Museum asked Gibson, who is of Choctaw and Cherokee descent, to explore its collection of Native American objects, which he did along with including his own art, and commentary by historian Dr. Christian Ayne Crouch, to offer new narratives on Indigenous people and their history and stories.

The exhibition is called “Jeffrey Gibson: When Fire Is Applied to a Stone It Cracks,” and the title comes from an Irish proverb, which Gibson describes in the show as being factual and metaphorically poetic.

“I read ‘fire’ in this quote to describe the innovative making, use of materials, transformative techniques, and the survivalist ethic of Indigenous people,” according to Gibson. “Our use of new and different materials to make things that support ourselves and our communities is the ‘fire’ that continues to break open the static and antiquated ideas regarding who we are and what we are capable of.”

“When Fire Is Applied to a Stone It Cracks,” Jeffrey Gibson, 2019.

 

When entering the exhibition, visitors immediately face a sculpture called “Dying Indian,” from around 1904 and by Charles Cary Rumsey, a piece that Gibson says is one of many Western bronzes made around that time, by non-Native people, to portray the decline and end of Native American civilizations.

Gibson notes that such images “have always saddened and perplexed me because I have never understood why some people celebrate these sculptures while I have found them offensive since I was a child.” Gibson also says about such images, “These sculptures present images of Native people that are idealized in the mind of the maker either for the objectification of their beauty or their demise.”

The “Dying Indian” sculpture has been modified with a custom pair of moccasins added to the figure, which were made by artist John Murie and include the words, “I’m Gonna Run with Every Minute I Can Borrow.” The phrase is from lyrics in the Roberta Flack song “See You Then.”

Another gallery includes works by Native artists from the museum’s collection, complemented by Gibson’s own works in similar techniques and materials. These include headdresses by Tsimshian and Sioux or Cheyenne artists, which Gibson notes have becomes used for romanticized or stereotyped notions of Native American people, and clothing by Seminole artists.

There are also many objects using beadwork, which dates back to the 16th century when Europeans introduced glass beads in trading, and Gibson notes the conflict between Indigenous people using such materials for their own crafts and the Western demand for what is traditionally thought by many as Native art that includes beadwork.

Man’s Shirt, c. 1940, and Dress, 20th century, by Seminole artists.
Garments made by Jeffrey Gibson in 2018.
“WHOSE WORLD IS THIS? IT’S YOURS IT’S MINE,” 2019, stained glass, by Jeffrey Gibson.

 

Another gallery examines the work of Stewart Culin, the first curator starting in 1903 of the Department of Ethnology at what would become the Brooklyn Museum, and who the exhibition says held racist views that contributed to bias in his curating practices. Gibson and Crouch address this and seek to change the narrative.

“The material in this room rejects the romanticized idea of the West – a false, vanishing frontier—or the reductive theatricality of the Wild West show,” Gibson and Crouch write. “We aimed to mute Culin’s voice in order to return the focus to Native people represented in the Archives and reports, who went about their daily lives and projected distinct representations of themselves.”

The exhibition will run until Jan. 10, 2021, and more information is at brooklynmuseum.org.

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