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September, 2012, Page 116
Photos by Brendan Moore
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.
Thomas “Breeze” Marcus
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.
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