It is to Laugh

Laughter and Resilience: Humor in Native American Art at the Wheelwright

Heidi Brandow’s work fits in nicely with the new show at the Wheelwright. (Courtesy of the Artist)

Meanwhile, at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian (704 Camino Lejo, 982-4636), curator Denise Neil has knocked it out of the park with Laughter and Resilience: Humor in Native American Art, a group exhibit examining the lighter side of contemporary Native creators across a variety of topics and mediums. Cut up into numerous sections such as "Whimsy" and "Satire+Parody," the show displays lesser-known narratives and humor based in popular culture, history, iconic imagery such as the clown, coyote and trickster, and more. Neil's curation deftly cuts a wide swath across tribal affiliations and artistic mediums from large-scale painting and animation to photography, illustration, basketry and found object sculpture—all while flipping the sad, tired notion of the humorless Native on its head.

"In the context of whatever I'm doing, I think if there's any seriousness involved, it's in redirecting the conversation from identifying Native art as having a singular perspective," exhibitor and artist Heidi Brandow (Diné/Kanaka Maoli) says.

Brandow appears in the "Whimsy" section with her pop art monsters. Anyone who's been paying attention to contemporary Native art in Santa Fe should know Brandow by now; she otherwise shows exclusively at form&concept and created new pieces specifically for the Wheelwright show.

"That weird serious Native thing still sticks," she continues, "and I'm sure it comes from the idea of people being oppressed."

This is sort of the subtext of the show—the dismantling of a peak colonialist assumption that Native people must be humorless in the face of so much ongoing oppression. It's not only racist, it's simply not true, though certain pieces in the show do align with the old axiom about how if you're laughing, you're probably not crying. Think of the humor as catharsis and as something all humans do, especially creators.

Elsewhere in the exhibit find cartoonist Ricardo Caté (Santo Domingo Pueblo) and illustrator Chad Browneagle (Shoshone Bannock/Spokane)—whose caricatures of notable living Native artists whose works are also in the exhibit, like Jason Garcia (Santa Clara Pueblo) and Cara Romero (Chemehuevi), are not only spot-on but quite funny.

Under the "Cartoons" header are gorgeous Mickey Mouse rings in silver and wood from Zuni Pueblo that, according to chief curator Andrea Hanley, are uncredited due to lawsuit threats from Disney in the '60s and '70s—the artists kept making them, they just stopped signing their work. In the same section are blankets featuring cartoon characters and some rather scathing political comic panels by Vincent Craig (Navajo).

America Meredith (Cherokee Nation) recalls her family being phone-tapped by the FBI, Steven J Yazzie (Navajo/Laguna Pueblo) riffs on an old friend and Tom Farris (Otoe-Missouria/Cherokee) retrofits a slot machine to parody Manifest Destiny, complete with reels bearing bison skulls, diseased blankets and whiskey bottles—"Subjugate 7 generations of Indigenous people & win big!" it reads on the machine—all while slyly reminding us about the casino industry as a big tribal money maker; Chaz John's (Winnebago, Mississippi Band Choctaw and European) Rez Dogs series even has a presence.

It makes for a more modern and accessible idea from the Wheelwright than I expected, but a direction I hope they'll continue to explore.

"You can see a lot of information that talks about how vital humor is to Native American tribes," Hanley tells SFR. "Art historians look back at work that's humorous as not as important as serious subject matter, but it can manifest itself in so many ways."

Laughter and Resilience runs through Oct. 4, 2020.

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