A couple of years back, I became familiar with the art of Santiago X, which can best be described as equal parts transgressive and tongue-in-cheek. As one-half of emerging hip-hop outfit Santiago x The Natural, the Chicago-based Santiago (b. 1982) sees music as a natural extension. “I sculpt soundwaves, I sculpt buildings because I have a history in architecture,” he says. “I work in waves. The medium changes, but the content never really does.”
As a Native American, how was it growing up in Guam?
Growing up in Guam? It was awesome. There's year-round perfect weather; I used to ride my bike to the beach. My dad was in the Air Force. I was actually born in Phoenix and spent some time in Texas and also Louisiana, near my reservation. As soon as I entered second grade, we moved out to Guam, so I'm Indigenous to there too. Luckily, my dad got stationed there, and they kept extending his tour, so I basically got to grow up there until high school. So, I got to be fully immersed in the Hacha'maori culture and spend a lot of time with my grandmother on that side and learn a lot about my Chamorro roots. Being a Native American from Guam, which is technically an American territory, and being Indigenous to that land was pretty much how I was raised as a kid, and as soon as I got into high school, we moved to Louisiana, so I got to learn more about that other Indigenous side of my heritage.
How does that duality influence your art?
Because I have a duality of indigeneity and everyone that’s Indigenous has a duality of being Native
American, it’s a really big part of my artwork. My art is an exploration of my cultural identity; it’s a reclamation of being both Indigenous and American, and reminding people that there’s a lot of stereotypical iconography that saturates Americana, and a lot of my artwork is reinforming that almost bastardization of our culture and trying to reinform it with the fact that Native people see this stuff. We’re aware of its history; we know it’s racist. Here’s a way for people that wouldn’t necessarily know that it’s racist or that it’s offensive to kind of look at it through our eyes. That’s a lot of what my artwork is: a reappropriation of misappropriation.
what do you think some of your more powerful pieces have been?
A couple of pieces…I think the one you latched on to early on was my 'Columbus Wanted' poster screen-print and sticker. There've been many iterations of that, and I'm unveiling a new one this market. That's one that really sharply calls him out in a very direct way. Another one is my cigar store Indian series that reappropriates that icon that we see everywhere. A lot of people don't know that that's rooted in pretty intense racism, equating Indigenous people to slaves and making that tangible through these carvings that are done by non-Native people. Another one that has gotten a lot of critique is my ghost series, where I reappropriated the Edward Curtis images and superimposed a 3-D form based on chaos theory. I used the chaos theory algorithm to generate these forms and did it for each photograph to create these very abstract masks. The whole point of that was to give them their spirit back, because a lot of Native people think that when photographs are taken of them out of context, it takes away some of their identity and spirit, so I wanted to give it back and transform the pictures from people looking at these pretty historic Indigenous leaders, not knowing their names or tribes, to those pictures looking at us as a kind of internal investigation.
You just touched on something that as an outsider is very interesting to me. How important is it for contemporary Native American artists to have their tribal affiliation always listed alongside their names?
I think it’s important. Number one, it’s always good to embrace the Indigenous culture as contemporary and respect other tribal ways when you’re doing your art. I think that when we put our artist name and our tribal affiliations after that, it gives context to our art. It says,
I'm from here, so if you know something about my culture, you'll see it in my artwork. If you don't, then you'll learn
. It’s also a way to self-police artwork and get a fair critique. I’m Southern Plains but really Woodland, and one of my first cigar store Indians had a Plains headdress on, but when you look at my name, you might say, ‘Oh, he’s not from the Plains,’ so it gives you some insight.
Find him: This weekend, Santiago mans booth 124 at the Indigenous Fine Art Market at the Railyard and acts as a co-curator of NDGNS X during Indian Market Edge at the Convention Center (201 W Marcy St., 955-6200).