From activist pop art to contemporary graffiti basketry, the latest crop of Native American art in Arizona is outgrowing stereotypes.
“Where’s the horses?”
As Thomas Greyeyes hangs his paintings on the wall of Vida E Caffe in Globe, he answers the confused older lady’s question with as much diplomacy as the 23-year-old Navajo artist can muster, considering he’s been answering questions like this for years.
“Well, I don’t really make horses anymore,” Greyeyes explains, brushing away wisps of long dark hair that escaped his ponytail and dangle over his glasses. “Those days are over for me. We do other things, as well.”
By “we,” Greyeyes means contemporary Native American artists, and by “other things,” he means provocative pop culture creations like his large-scale painting of a police officer in riot gear riddled with arrows, framed by 3D backdrops (made with home-installation spray foam) painted a bloody purple-red to lend an entrails-effect to the piece. In another large painting, Greyeyes portrays a black leather-clad Native American punk rock girl standing with her back to the viewer, clutching a bow and wearing a studded vest emblazoned with the title of the painting, “Indigenous Resistance.” There’s a print titled “No Justice on Stolen Land,” which renders Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio with an arrow through his head, surrounded by utility poles and wires. And Greyeyes’ self-portraits convey the conflict of having one foot “on the rez” and one in the city – a cultural duality that affects nearly every young Native artist in Arizona today.
The audience at Vida E Caffe on this First Friday in July evinces mixed reactions to these pieces. The cozy coffee shop – with its burnt orange-stained concrete floors, peridot and red sponge-painted walls, and indie rock wafting from the sound system – may be the hippest place in sleepy Globe. The San Carlos Apache Nation lies a mere 20 minutes’ drive east of town, and fliers for Native poetry nights and music festivals hang on the cork board near the coffee bar. But though the San Carlos live next door, the window into that world is smudged by stereotypes and expectations. Some people stare, wide-eyed, at Greyeyes’ paintings and tell him his work is “good stuff”; others shake their heads and beeline for the mountain sunset watercolor prints another artist sells in a box by the door.
Mainstream contemporary art is provocative and progressive by nature – audiences demand freshness, and aesthetics are encouraged to climb out of the traditional box and challenge viewers’ minds. But the most prominent Native American art is hundreds of years old, as if the public’s views of Native people were as fixed as dried paint, and the boundaries of their taste as narrow as a picture frame. This is a point of frustration for Native American artists who aren’t making work that plays to a “traditional” aesthetic.
Arizona is home to a small but dynamic community of such indigenous artists from various nations – trailblazers like Greyeyes, Chip “Jetsonorama” Thomas, Dwayne Manuel, Razelle Benally, Anthony Thosh Collins, Douglas Miles and Thomas “Breeze” Marcus. Their work doesn’t feature dreamcatchers, eagles, feathers, teepees, turquoise, flute players, infants in papooses, or horses. They say those things are relics of the past; they make art that reflects what’s happening to their people now, in the modern world, simultaneously struggling against romanticized images so deeply woven into mainstream society that they can make modern artists feel like anachronisms themselves.
“It’s gotten better, but definitely in the past, [American Indians have] been treated as a novelty, or a romantic vision, almost as if we don’t really exist,” Thomas Marcus says. “It’s kind of like we’re on the back burner, or like a myth, like the dinosaurs or something. Like an ancient relic, like ‘Oh, these people were here a long time ago.’ Not realizing that we’re living, breathing and walking around just like everybody else in a contemporary world.”
Though it’s been a tough sell to anthropologically-minded museums and non-Native-owned tourist hotspot galleries, this wave of expectation-shattering Native American art has found some welcoming shores across the Valley and country. Marcus’ graffiti art – which often weaves intricate basket patterns intrinsic to his Native cultures into desert scenes – adorns walls all over the city, including an alley behind the Hyatt Regency in Downtown Phoenix, in Barrio Café at Terminal 4 in Sky Harbor Airport, and along 16th Street between McDowell and Thomas roads. San Carlos resident and Apache Skateboards founder Douglas Miles’ art is showcased in several museums and galleries nationwide, including the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians & Western Art in Indianapolis, and Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank, California. Greyeyes’ art has been shown at a few local galleries, including The Hive on 16th Street.
Marcus, Miles and Greyeyes have taught art classes or worked with youth on reservations nationwide, and are hopeful the Native arts community will continue growing and evolving. “There are all these other creative Native peoples, and somehow we’re meeting each other and talking about things, and maybe we’ll collaborate on some things and open some other doors that haven’t been opened before,” Greyeyes says. “I think part of my job is to help this community take it to the next level, whatever that may be.”
The San Carlos Apache Nation reservation exudes a rural, struggling small-town feel. Located two hours and twenty minutes east of Phoenix, the community of simple, single-story homes and trailers is nestled in dry mountain terrain, not as remote as some communities in Arizona but distinctly disconnected from Phoenix. Here, the neighborhoods come in clusters of modest houses separated by miles of overgrown weeds and sun-bleached reeds. Alleys act as main roads. There are no art galleries, no public buses, not even a Wal-Mart.
But there are small businesses like the family-owned San Carlos Café, where Douglas Miles’ son, Doug, works, and where Miles sits in a burgundy pleather booth on a dry, hot Monday afternoon in July, staring down an Apache Burger, which he affectionately refers to as “a gut bomb” – two plump beef patties on fluffy, chewy fry bread, encircled by lettuce, tomato, and thick strips of red onion. Miles’ art hangs high on the wall next to him: a black stencil drawing of a Native woman holding a rifle, surrounded by three baby-faced Apache boys pointing pistols toward the viewer, with the word “Love” painted in thick black letters across the bottom.
Miles, 48, has shown his work everywhere from the Heard Museum in Phoenix – where he won a Best of Painting award at the Indian Art Market in 2003 – to Princeton University, where he contributed to the “Pop Life” exhibit at Wilson College in 2005. Miles’ art is heavily influenced by American pop culture; he grew up reading comic books and listening to his older brother’s classic rock records, marveling at the cover art for bands like The Beatles, Big Brother & the Holding Company, and Ten Years After. In 2002, after painting a skate deck for his son Doug, he founded Apache Skateboards, and over the past 10 years, has collaborated with companies like iPath Footwear and Volcom to produce skateboards, T-shirts, wallets, belt buckles and shoes emblazoned with a sort of punk rock-Apache aesthetic. He’s drawn cover art for records by local skate punk bands JFA and Dephinger.
He’s celebrated among his peers for his outspokenness, but when asked a question, he often pauses and gazes intently at a point in space, thinking hard before venturing an answer. When asked about the image of Native Americans as “noble savages” or tragic romantic heroes, there’s a long lull while he looks down at his hands. They are dark and distinct, with calloused palms and patches of beige burn scars on the back of his right hand, which also bears a crude black line art tattoo of a skull on his middle finger.
After several seconds, he says, “That type of romantic imagery sells a lot of movie tickets, sells a lot of books, sells a lot of museum memberships, sells a lot of Native American magazines, sells a lot of Native American fashion… They’re selling this image of who they think we are or who they think we once were. It goes back to a line in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: ‘What do we print? When the legend becomes the truth, print the legend.’ It’s the same thing. When it comes time to buy or sell the legend, sell the legend. Because there’s lots of money to be made. There’s a lot of people walking around talking about Native American constructs from the past 200, 300, 500 years.
“That leaves artists like myself talking about the here and now, and it’s like, nobody wants to hear that,” Miles continues. “Because it’s not romantic. It’s not romantic when I tell you, ‘Dang, I had to borrow gas money just to take my kids to Wal-Mart.’… It’s not romantic to talk about ‘Well, my eyesight is getting bad’… It’s not romantic because I don’t live in a fancy town where I can get awesome [art] supplies, but I can find old junk and make it art. What’s noble about that? Nothing. Nobody wants to buy that. But I don’t care, because that’s what we do. That’s what makes us who we are. And I think it’s that love, in that struggle, that makes the art stand out.”
Evidence of this daily struggle surrounds Miles as he works on cutting a graffiti stencil in his backyard workshop, fashioned from chicken wire and painted scrap boards. Abandoned appliances and dirt-dappled plastic playground parts create an obstacle course for a tawny Shar Pei puppy named Captain and a scrawny, screaming black kitten named Missy. There’s also a rusty basketball hoop sans basket, and parts for several dismantled skateboard ramps leaning against a decrepit double-wide trailer with gaping spaces full of jagged glass teeth where windows used to be. It’s definitely not “romantic.” But it is real. Refuse waiting to be reborn as art.
Miles’ work hangs throughout his ranch-style home, which he shares with his four adult children and his grandson, Breeze, named after longtime friend Thomas “Breeze” Marcus. Across the back of the living room sofa sits a long, lacquered wood board showing Miles’ comic strip-like Apache warriors; in the hallway hangs a big painting of an Apache warrior wearing black-and-white checkers – a popular motif in the “ska punk” scene. Vaguely poking out from under the paint at the bottom of the picture are the words “Van Gogh, Musée d’Orsay.” Miles laughs when asked if he painted over a Van Gogh print. “It was really about replacing an old artistic hero with a new one, which is me,” he says. “I’m my artistic hero.”
Just past the dining area, where photos of Miles’ mother and father (a World War II veteran) hang, is Miles’ bedroom. The modest enclave resembles a college art student’s dorm, littered with tubes and jars of paint, aerosol cans, stacks of CDs and clothes, with walls covered in graffiti (mostly punk rock band names and classic rock song lyrics). Several graffiti stencils on poster boards lean against a book shelf. Miles’ latest one depicts a beautiful young Apache woman holding a big, sleek pistol. “It’s a mix of hard and soft. That’s what makes it work. That’s what makes it interesting,” he says. “A female holding a male symbol, a gun in this case, causes people to wonder what’s going on, but also causes people to view [women] differently – strong, non-stereotypical, non-sexual. I create images of strong females because growing up and even now, I know a lot of strong women, women who are working jobs, raising families, sometimes doing art. It’s taking a non-objectifying view of women and viewing them as individuals with independent spirit. People are not used to seeing Native women, or women of color, in power.”
Miles has found that most curators of Native American museums aren’t used to seeing – or aren’t interested in seeing – a modern Native voice speaking pop art. He’s worked with several progressive museums and galleries around the world, including the Heard Museum in Phoenix. He says he’s glad there are a few places open to showing some contemporary Native art, but he wishes the Heard would show even more. The majority of museums, he says, are primarily interested in the more profitable industry of showing and studying archetypes. Miles has repeatedly said, “I am not a museum piece,” and laments the lack of interest in art that reflects modern Native life. “The problem with the over-study of Native people is that it’s created a three-part prism – which is archeology, anthropology and ethnography – which creates a pristine lens of the past but completely leaves out current artistic expressions and movements and forums and mediums that Native people are either exploring now or existing in right at this moment,” he says. “You’re talking about a whole generation of artists that will be ignored or are being ignored right now.”
Thomas Marcus stands in the center of Por Vida, the gallery a few doors down from Barrio Café on 16th Street that he operates with artists Lalo Cota and Pablo Luna. Marcus, 32, points to his artwork on the wall – vinyl records decorated with intricate weaving patterns – and discusses his aesthetic.
With the exception of a series of nature paintings that include cactuses and hummingbirds wrought in bright, nearly-neon colors, Marcus’ art is completely abstract. He’s best-known for his spray graphic murals, which combine the shapes and angles of graffiti letter typography with intricate, interconnected lines based on the Native American tradition of basket weaving with materials from the desert. “I’m basically taking the idea of weaving and just [being] very organic,” Marcus says. “It’s from the earth. It kind of fit my ideas to take graffiti and sort of bridge the gap. So the blend of the old and the new becomes sort of contemporary graffiti basketry.”
The collisions and connections of lines represent the “organized chaos” of life, a theme Marcus returns to in his other works, like the painting of a tree in his nature series. The tree sprouts from the ground and stretches its silvery branches toward the sky; an identical tree grows upside-down from its trunk and deeper into the earth, both an extension of and a reflection of itself. Marcus’ maze-like weaving patterns blanket the bark of both trees. “To me, the tree represents anything and everything that’s alive. I always relate people to trees because we have that center, we have roots, and we all branch out,” he says. “And it goes deeper, back to the concept that everything is interwoven and connected together. We have to survive next to one another, so it’s this beautiful chaos once again.”
Marcus, who is Tohono and Akimel O’odham, grew up in Phoenix and on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, next to Scottsdale. There, he says, he “saw all the fake and cheesy authentic Native art galleries and jewelry stores. Most of the time those places – all non-Native-owned – are buying handmade arts and crafts from reservation roadside vendors at wholesale cost, which is usually next to nothing, then they mark it up by 1,000 percent.”
He wasn’t interested in even trying to break into the mainstream Native art market until spending years around Douglas Miles, who was taking Apache Skateboards everywhere from the Navajo Nation and the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe Reservation to Harvard University and the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts.
“I remember Douglas saying in 2005, ‘How come you don’t show at the Heard Museum Native art market?’ And my response at the time was, ‘People don’t want to see my stuff. They want to see a guy on a horse. They want to see teepees. They don’t want to see my stuff. They won’t get it anyway,’” Marcus recalls. “But seeing him interact in that circle, and just putting his name out there and being part of that Native art world… I guess I’ve eased up a bit. Maybe it’s all right to step in and check it out a bit.’ It’s like, ‘OK, let’s take it over. Let’s overthrow that whole idea of what Native art should be.’ And I think it’s great.”
To that end, local Native artists are taking steps to ensure their work is seen, and teaching younger generations. Marcus has Por Vida as a vehicle for his work, and in December of last year, he participated in an all-Native art exhibition at The Hive gallery on 16th Street. The show also included work by Chip Thomas, Dwayne Michael, Anthony Thosh Collins, Thomas Greyeyes and Douglas Miles. “That show was purposely put on to help aid in breaking down the barriers of ‘Native art,’” Marcus says. “The artists involved… all have work that is far beyond anything ‘traditional.’”
Marcus taught art classes at Scottsdale Center for the Arts as part of their Cultural Connections program for four semesters until budget cuts killed the program. He says he’s been approached by people in the Salt River community about getting himself and other O’odham artists involved in teaching classes to youth, which he’d like to do. “Different people from the community recognize that myself and these other artists have very progressive styles… They know that we’re evolving spiritually, physically, as artists and people. And they want to see that,” Marcus says. “Not only do they want to see that, but kids react to that. The younger generations, they can relate to it, because they’re in mainstream society and pop culture, no matter what. They need somebody to be able to say, ‘It’s OK to branch out and step out of your comfort zone of traditional,’ or ‘It’s OK to be contemporary pop culture and tie traditional to it.’”
About a year ago, Marcus painted a mural of South Mountain on the side of a Downtown building at Fifth and Roosevelt streets. The prominent piece shows a brilliant orange sun dropping down a purple sky to set over the shadowy mountain range. The labyrinthine canals of Marcus’ ancestors, the Hohokam, cover the land in thick, black lines. Marcus says South Mountain, which his people traditionally called “Moadak” or “greasy mountain,” is sacred, home to a Native deity who watches over and protects everyone. The south side of the mountain lies on Gila River Indian Community land, but the Arizona Department of Transportation is considering building a freeway through the area. “Basically, they want to have a loop that goes around the mountain, through the community, and they have proposed blasting through the mountain somehow,” Marcus says. “And traditional people are like, ‘No, you can’t do that. That’s traditional land’… They don’t want another freeway, they don’t want the noise, all the pollution and hazards. It’s like, hasn’t enough land been taken already and built over? And there’s still a spiritual connection to that mountain, and that’s what people don’t really understand. ADOT doesn’t understand that. They don’t care, because they care more about money.”
So Marcus painted the South Mountain mural to pay tribute to a sacred place and bring attention to the issue. But he also says the mural, like all his graffiti art, is a bridge to reclaiming indigenous identity. “When I create artwork here in the city of Phoenix, of course because my people are originally from this Valley, to me it’s sort of reclaiming the territory one wall at a time. So when I do a piece of artwork… I think, ‘I’m bringing my people’s identity back into the Valley,’” Marcus says. “We’ve gone through the wringer, perhaps, in the past. We don’t have to victimize ourselves anymore. We don’t have to say, ‘Woe is us.’ We’re just gonna go out and make stuff happen. We’re going to go out and create beauty. We’re going to convey messages either in your face or subliminally.”
Thomas Greyeyes knew something was going to happen as soon as he saw the coyote cross his path.
Last September, he was driving a rented car toward Flagstaff in the middle of the night, with a trunk full of corn stalks from his grandmother’s house on the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona. He and his girlfriend, Grace Miles (daughter of Douglas Miles), were on a last-minute guerilla art mission for Greyeyes’ Art & Ecology class project at ASU. Greyeyes’ unstarted project – due the next day – called for the use of sustainable, organic materials, so the plan was to “borrow” some big, artificially fancy rocks from “some hotel” to anchor the corn stalks to the lawns at Flagstaff City Hall, Heritage Square, Cline Library at NAU, and anywhere else they could be prominently seen. They also planned to paint “Protect the Peaks” in mud on the buildings, a protest against the recreational commercialization of the San Francisco Peaks, a sacred range to the Navajo and Hopi people, and longtime site of the expanding Arizona Snowbowl Ski Resort.
Then they saw the coyote. “In my culture, when a coyote crosses your path... it’s warning you there’s something ahead of you in your journey that night,” Greyeyes says. But the coyote wasn’t heading north, which would have been a really bad omen. So Greyeyes pulled off to the side of the road, said a quick prayer, and continued driving toward Flagstaff.
A short distance up the road, another coyote crossed Greyeyes’ path. Heading north. But his project was coming due. He didn’t have time to try it again. He didn’t have the money to rent another car. They had all the materials. So they kept going. He and Grace arrived in Flagstaff and commenced making mud graffiti and building corn stalk altars. They hit City Hall, Heritage Square, and Cline Library before wandering onto the lawn of an abandoned house on the corner of San Francisco Street and Cottage Avenue. While carrying buckets of mud off the lot, they were stopped by a police officer – who noticed the word “PEAKS” painted on the wall in big, brown letters – arrested, and charged with criminal damage.
Greyeyes says they didn’t think they were doing anything that would damage any property. But he says he has an artistic side and an activist side, and the two often merge in his art. “I was born and raised in Flagstaff, and in Flagstaff, there’s an indigenous narrative, Navajo people’s narrative to the land,” he says. “And we say that this specific mountain, the San Francisco Peaks, is holy… so growing up, that’s what I knew. I always knew it was home and that my people had a really deep connection to this land, but at the same time, as time passes, after the indigenous narrative comes the colonial narrative – people coming in and declaring this land theirs, and the peaks just became a point of recreation for more privileged people. And that really bothers me, that there are these privileged people not willing to acknowledge other histories.”
The “Save the Peaks” movement and the South Mountain freeway debate are just two of the issues imbued in contemporary Native American art. For younger indigenous artists like Greyeyes, there’s also the struggle of duality, of having one foot on the reservation and one in the city. The title of his print “Tseé” refers to his umbilical cord. “When you’re born Navajo, they save the umbilical cord and they plant it somewhere specific – maybe in a cornfield, or under a tree – and it’s put there so you know you have a specific place where you’re connected to the earth, and to know where you come from,” Greyeyes explains. In “Tseé,” a young Greyeyes wriggles in a web of images – his umbilical cord extends to and from the earth like a thick root but ribbons into a thread-thin point midway, ready to break. Above him, pulling him farther from the cord, hovers a tentacled cloud of televisions, money, bottles and “just basic civilization,” he says.
It gets people talking. “I think that’s the idea – to increase this dialogue between generations and groups and whatever it is, and maybe if enough of it happens, people start doing some action, and action might lead to results and we might see some social change happening, for the better,” Greyeyes says. “And maybe Native people won’t hold these social stigmas that we hold now. And it’s so subtle, too – like that lady earlier who was like, ‘Where’s the horses?’”
To Thomas Marcus, being part of an artistic community that continually evolves and produces fresh work is a vital detail in changing the big picture. “Let’s let people know that we are still here, that we’re not just a myth or just struggling people in poverty or suffering from alcoholism or loss of identity. We are here,” he says. “We’re living and breathing in the cities right next to you and you don’t even know it. We’re creating artwork on your walls.”
Just don’t expect horses.