The Struggle to Accept the Native “Self”

O’siyo. For many Natives, especially ones not born on the Rez where there is cultural support, the path to identity can be a difficult one. Sometimes, the problem stems from outside forces… sometimes from inner struggles. Native artist Jeffrey Gibson (Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and half-Cherokee) had this struggle with identity for many years. Finally at age 41, he found his Native “Self” and expresses his Native heredity through his beautiful art.

Jeffrey Gibson, in his studio in Hudson, N.Y., Credit- Pete Mauney

Jeffrey Gibson, in his studio in Hudson, N.Y., Credit- Pete Mauney

Excerpt: At Peace With Many Tribes By Carol Kino, The New York Times

“Jeffrey Gibson paced around his studio, trying to keep track of which of his artworks was going where. [There was] Mr. Gibson’s outsize rendition of a parfleche trunk, a traditional American Indian rawhide carrying case, covered with Malevich-like shapes, which would be shipped to New York for a solo exhibition at the National Academy Museum. Two Delaunay-esque abstractions made with acrylic on unstretched elk hides had already been sent to a museum in Ottawa, but the air was still suffused with the incense-like fragrance of the smoke used to color the skins.

Camouflage (2004) Credit- Marc Straus, New York, and Samson, Boston

Camouflage (2004) Credit- Marc Straus, New York, and Samson, Boston

If you’d told me five years ago that this was where my work was going to lead, said Mr. Gibson, gesturing to other pieces, including two beaded punching bags and a cluster of painted drums, I never would have believed it.

Now 41, he is a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and half-Cherokee. But for years, he said, he resisted the impulse to quote traditional Indian art, just as he had rejected the pressure he’d felt in art school to make work that reflected his so-called identity.

Don’t Break the Spell (2013) on deer hide. Credit- Marc Straus, New York, and Samson, Boston

Don’t Break the Spell (2013) on deer hide. Credit- Marc Straus, New York, and Samson, Boston

The way we describe identity here is so reductive, Mr. Gibson said. It never bleeds into seeing you as a more multifaceted person. But now I’m finally at the point where I can feel comfortable being your introduction to American Indian culture, he added. It’s just a huge acceptance of self.

Judging from Mr. Gibson’s growing number of exhibitions, self-acceptance has done his work a lot of good.

In addition to the National Academy exhibition, “Said the Pigeon to the Squirrel,” which opens Thursday and runs through Sept. 8, his pieces can be seen in four other places.

Because his father worked for the Defense Department, he was raised in South Korea, Germany and different cities in the United States, so acclimating was normal to me, he said. And one of the most persistent messages he heard growing up was never to identify as a minority.

Flight Pattern (2013) Credit- Marc Straus, New York, and Samson, Boston

Flight Pattern (2013) Credit- Marc Straus, New York, and Samson, Boston

At the same time, because much of his extended family lives near reservations in Oklahoma and Mississippi, Mr. Gibson also grew up going to powwows and Indian festivals. He even briefly considered studying traditional Indian art, but instead opted to major in studio art at a community college near his parents’ house outside Washington… Mr. Gibson often felt pressured to examine just one aspect of his life -his Indian heritage, with its implicit cultural sense of victimhood — when what he really yearned to do was to paint like Matisse or Warhol. At the same time, he was learning about that heritage in a new way as a research assistant. 

Yet Mr. Gibson did mostly expressionistic landscapes filled with Disney characters, like Pocahontas, and decorated with sequins and glitter. His work continued in a similar vein while he was earning his M.F.A. at the Royal College of Art in London. Although the Mississippi Band paid for his education, the experience gave him a welcome break from grappling with concerns about identity, he said, and a chance to just look at art and think about the formal qualities of making an artwork. 

Drum Column (2012), on display at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston.Credit- John Kennard:Marc Straus, New York, and Samson, Boston.

Drum Column (2012), on display at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston.Credit- John Kennard:Marc Straus, New York, and Samson, Boston.

His 2012 show with Participant, “One Becomes the Other,” proved to be a turning point. In it, he collaborated with traditional Indian artists to create works like the string of painted drums, or a deer hide quiver that held an arrow made from a pink fluorescent bulb.

Painting- Close to the Edge (2013) Credit- Marc Straus, New York, and Samson, Boston

Painting- Close to the Edge (2013) Credit- Marc Straus, New York, and Samson, Boston

And once he set brush to rawhide, Mr. Gibson said, he was hooked. As well as being an amazing surface to work on,”he said, its relationship to parchment intrigued me.

Freedom (2013) Credit- Marc Straus, New York, and Samson, Boston

Freedom (2013) Credit- Marc Straus, New York, and Samson, Boston

But the underlying change, Mr. Gibson added, came from his decision to shed the notion of being a member of a minority group.”

“Suddenly all art, European, American, and Indian alike, became merely individual points on this periphery around me. Once I thought of myself as the center, the world opened up.”~Native artist Jeffrey Gibson~

Note: Jeffrey Gibson has exhibitions of his work currently showing at the National Academy Museum in New York from  May 23-through Sept. 8. 2013.

Our congratulations and happiness to Jeffrey for his wonderful art creations and for finally connecting to his “Native Self”.

Category: Social