by Sandra Hale Schulman
News From Indian Country
I first saw Wendy Red Star’s work in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s sprawling exhibit of native art that ranged from traditional – ledger drawings, headdresses- to wildly contemporary – video and photography. A large photo by Wendy Red Star made me look twice. Seated in a diorama setting with astro turf for grass and an obvious fake wallpaper backdrop, Red Star posed with a blow up deer and a sincere “I am one with nature” look on her beautiful face.
Red Star wore a traditional Crow elk-tooth dress. The elk-tooth dress, an iconic image of Crow culture is adorned with hundreds of reproduced elk teeth. Traditionally, the teeth were a symbol of wealth, as only two can be harvested from a single elk. So the juxtaposition of the sincere with faux takes this image to an otherworldly realm.
“The look pulls people in, but as you look closer you can see the image deteriorate, and if you are more privy to Native history you can see it right away,” Red Star says.
Born in Billings, Montana of Crow and Irish descent, Red Star was raised on the Crow reservation, she uses humor to confront romanticized representations. She poses popular depictions of Native Americans with authentic cultural and gender identities. Her groundbreaking work has been described as brash and surreal.
Her mother was a nurse who encouraged her daughter to pursue the Crow heritage. Her father ranched and was a licensed pilot who played in the “Maniacs”, an Indian rock band. Red Star is a niece of the artist Kevin Red Star who creates much more conservative native themed art.
In 2004, Red Star received her B.F.A. from Montana State University – Bozeman, majoring in sculpture, then earned an MFA from the University of California in Los Angeles. She now resides in Portland, Oregon.
She has continued to expand the media she works with to include photography, sculpture, video, fiber arts, and performance. She pores over archives and historical narratives to upend their perspectives, taking traditional norms and giving them an unexpected twist. The Four Seasons series, one of which was shown at the Met exhibit, is a prime example – you almost think she is just the model who doesn’t realize the absurd setting she has been asked to pose in until you realize she is the artist too and totally in on the joke.
Another series she created is the “White Squaw” a totally offensive line of mock magazine covers that mash up classic pulp images of noble savages with Red Star’s face smiling and leering in mock pin up mode.
She poses red and yellow painted coyotes with Indian blankets draped across their backs, and paints buckskin dresses black to take these traditional icons into a new unsettling realm. One series has gold deer with their heads cut off, gold tinsel streaming from the wound.
In an interview with Artnet about the Met show, Red Star said “I come from a humorous background, not just my Crow side, but my Irish side as well. I’ve always seen things through this ironic lens. I’m always laughing.
In my own Crow community, we have a whole policing system that uses teasing. To have that element in my work is quite Native, or Crow, and I’m glad that it comes through. It’s universal. People can connect with the work that way. Then they can be open to talking about race. As a brown person, as a brown artist, your work is political. Whether you like it or not. Even if you are doing abstract painting, as soon as someone finds out you’re brown they think, “This is about racism.” The first time I came across this was when I was in undergrad and I was erecting teepees around campus. I had discovered that Bozeman, Montana was Crow territory. I wanted everybody to know that this was Crow territory. I didn’t even think of it as political. I just thought, this is true. It wasn’t until years later that I realized they are saying it’s political because it’s against the colonial standard. I don’t aim to do political work, but it becomes political because it’s talking outside the colonial framework. There’s a whole notion of being ‘authentic. Your art is supposed to look like the 19th century, like we’re a dead culture that never evolved.”
“Wendy’s work isn’t about being a victim, or bemoaning colonialism,” says Terrance Houle, a Canadian artist of Blood and Ojibwe ancestry with whom Red Star has collaborated. “It has a definite Indian sense of humor, and it’s bright and beautiful, and that’s an aspect of indigenous culture people don’t often see.”
Red Star has exhibited in the United States and abroad at venues including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fondation Cartier pour l’ Art Contemporain, Domaine de Kerguéhennec, Portland Art Museum, Hood Art Museum, St. Louis Art Museum, and the Minneapolis Institute of Art, among others. She served a visiting lecturer at institutions including Yale University, the Figge Art Museum, the Banff Centre, National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Dartmouth College, CalArts, Flagler College, Fairhaven College, and I.D.E.A. Space in Colorado Springs. In 2015, Red Star was awarded an Emerging Artist Grant from the Joan Mitchell Foundation. In 2016, she participated in Contemporary Native Photographers and the Edward Curtis Legacy at the Portland Art Museum, and recently mounted a solo exhibition as part of the museum’s APEX series.
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Sandra Hale Schulman is an arts writer, curator and film producer. She is also a spokesperson for Native American causes on TV and radio.