Contemporary American Indian Arts

Contemporary American Indian art is a very complex and multidimensional sphere that is so diverse that it cannot be characterized with any universal description. Nowadays,  Indian art, as any other national or ethnic art, gives artists complete freedom of self-expression, thus their works significantly differ both in the thematic aspect and in terms of artistic methods and techniques used. This essay will focus on the analysis of three works – Prototype for New Understanding #5 (1999) by Brian Jungen, Drip Drop Plop (2001) by Fred Wilson and Home At Last, Home At Last, Home At Last (2012) by Jimmie Durham. These art works explore the common themes of reconsidering the past and creating new modern perspective of interpreting the events of the previous periods, but the artists use different strategies that allow them to study both psychological and philosophical aspects of these problems.

The oldest art work of the three pieces analyzed in this paper is Prototype for New Understanding #5 (1999) by Brian Jungen. This famous Canadian artist has a mixed Swiss and Dunne-za First Nations origin that allows him to perfectly incorporate various elements of his own cultural and historical background into his works. He is one of the most successful modern continuators of the traditions of so-called “found art” that was thoroughly developed by Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol in the middle of the 20th century. However, Jungen does not use the strategies that are identical with the methods of the “masters.” He modifies the ideology of this movement and includes strong ethnic motives.

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The series Prototypes of New Understanding that was created by Brian Jungen from 1998 to 2005 is a perfect illustration of his artistic methods and approaches. The works included in the series represent the traditional ritual masks of Native Americans (in this case some Canadian tribes), but they are assembled of different parts of Nike Air Jordan shoes and human hair. Prototype for New Understanding #5 is a black mask with small inclusions of white and red. Such color combination makes it look rather aggressive. The mouth of this mask is slightly skewed that also adds some irony to the general atmosphere created by the art work. By combining old traditions and brand-new materials that are an important part of modern pop culture Jungen explores how the American society (not only the Native Americans) treat their past and how the processes of assimilation and certain cultural corruption impact their philosophy and principles.

Fred Wilson explores the similar theme, but he uses different strategies and methods to communicate his messages to the audience. He describes his cultural heritage in very broad terms saying that he is “African, Native American, European and Amerindian” at the same time. This universal character is applicable not only to his biography, but also to the conceptual content of all his works. Drip Drop Plop is a modern sculpture made of glass. It features several black drops that go down the vertical white surface and some drops that are already on the horizontal platform having taken the round shape of small puddles. Some of these black glass drops have cartoonish eyes and they look in different directions. This thought-provoking piece of art explores the intrinsic visual qualities of the black and shiny glass while acknowledging the superficial seductiveness of these features. Although Drip Drop Plop primarily deals with the historical heritage of African Americans, this art work should not be understood in a narrow way. The black drops look like tears that may metaphorically correspond to the sufferings that were experienced not only by black population of the Americans, but by all ethnic groups that were oppressed and discriminated in the human history. However, at the same time, Wilson is quite ironic. By putting these small cartoonish eyes to the droplets he urges the audience to critically analyze the meaning of his work. In addition, Wilson challenges other common artistic approaches that deal with the history of African Americans and other ethnic groups like Native Americans that suffered from oppression and continuous discrimination on all social levels.

The sculpture called Home At Last, Home At Last, Home At Last by Jimmie Durham, a Cherokee artist who is known worldwide and is currently based in Berlin and Rome, is a perfect example of extremely creative and complex approach to reconsidering the past of the humanity in general. The artist draws upon his Native American heritage to create powerful and thought-provoking works that challenge the overwhelming Western hegemony, which, from Durham’s perspective, destroys the moral and philosophic basis necessary for modern people. This work is a parallelepiped stone whose sides are painted with acrylic paints in red and magenta. However, the upper side of the stone is left untouched so that the audience can compare the texture and the quality of the surfaces. Durham often uses stones in his work, but in contrast to this piece of art, they represent some destructive Western ideals, so the primary functions of those stones is to crash various objects. This art work seems to be an exception from the general tendency. It is obvious that the paint on this stone with its great and beautiful texture looks alien. Painting this stone is like an act of vandalism. Therefore, in this work the stone represents the essence of Native Americans who have been forced to apply the “paint” of the Western civilization that deprived them of expressing their true nature.

In my opinion, the strategy applied by Brian Jungen is the most interesting and effective among the discussed works. The way he combines modern materials and old traditions of Indians is very impressive. Looking at Prototype for New Understanding #5 and many other works in this series makes me think of how the original traditions of this social group might have changed under the impact of Western civilization that was continuously imposed on them since the arrival of the first white colonizers. Nowadays, there are many various programs that support the traditions of ethnic minorities and immigrants, but the question is whether they are effective and if it is possible to find anything truly original and pure. Using Nike shoes to make traditional masks is a very inventive and probably even radical strategy, but I think that Jungen was right to apply it. Perhaps the traditions of Native Americans are in this case represented in a slightly derogatory way, but it is obvious that using such shocking method is a key to producing a huge impact on the person’s perception and interpretation of the very important themes. The works of Jungen helped me to pay more attention to my old heritage and try to understand how much my current life can be different from the lives of my ancestors.

To conclude, all three artists whose works were discussed and analyzed in this paper deal with the ideas of reevaluating the past and exploring the themes of negative impact of pop culture and Western ideology on the moral and ethic values of people. All the works can refer not only to the current problems of the Native Americans, but they also may be applied to a much wider range of issues topical for the whole humanity.