Wendy Red Star Valiantly Recontextualizes Indigenous Representation
Wendy Red Star, Apsáalooke Feminist #4, from the series “Apsáalooke Feminist,” 2016; from Wendy Red Star: Delegation (Aperture, 2022). © Wendy Red Star.
In 1984, the Museum of Modern Art mounted an exhibition called “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern.” It featured 150 works by modern artists like Pablo Picasso and Paul Gauguin along with more than 200 artifacts from Indigenous cultures of the Pacific Islands, Africa, and North America—the latter category implied to be primitive. Critics lambasted the curators for omitting important contextualizing information regarding dates, explanations of religious and folklore connections, and environmental factors. Art historian and Artforum reviewer Thomas McEvilly declared that the show was “Western egotism still as unbridled as in the centuries of colonialism and souvenirism.”
Almost 40 years later, that presentation continues to be a stain in the canon of institutional exhibitions. Although progress is being made, biases, however intentional or implicit, persist. In Delegation, the newly published and first-ever comprehensive monograph of Native American artist Wendy Red Star, the artist puts into literary form the valiant pursuit that’s informed her whole career, recontextualizing Indigenous representation and narratives in relation to American history. Delegation, co-published by Aperture and Documentary Arts, centers Red Star’s extensive body of work, which includes self-portraiture, collage, sculpture, and site-specific installations.
Along with Red Star’s seminal works, Delegation, which was released in late May, also features essays, stories, and poems by Jordan Amirkhani, Layli Long Soldier, Annika K. Johnson, and Tiffany Midge that explore the ongoing themes of identity, cultural mythology, appropriation, colonization, costuming, and satire woven throughout Red Star’s work. An accompanying solo exhibition, also titled “Delegation,” is on view at Sargent’s Daughters, which represents Red Star, in New York through June 25th. On June 25th, there will be a book launch and signing with the artist at the gallery; and on Wednesday, June 29th, the Aperture PhotoBook Club will host a conversation with Red Star regarding the new volume.
When Wendy Red Star, a member of the federally recognized Crow Tribe of Montana, was a homesick MFA student at UCLA, she decided to go to the local museum to connect with her Crow culture. She entered the museum’s dimly lit Native American galleries and observed spectators looking at outdated dioramas and scenes depicting Native peoples. Red Star, who grew up on a Crow reservation in Billings, Montana, and knows Crow culture intimately, could see through the museum’s lens that Native peoples were extinct. Indigenous people no longer lived in the way the museum portrayed, and furthermore, that demonstration perpetuated narratives and notions of Indigenous peoples being primitive and savagely.
Perturbed by this finding, Red Star created her 2006 watershed photographic work “Four Seasons Series.” In this four-part series, Red Star is bedecked in traditional Crow regalia. In the photos, each set in a different season, Red Star is the primary subject. Behind her are printed vintage Ansel Adams–esque landscapes. She is accompanied by blow-up plastic animals and faux foliage; for the winter vista, snow is made of styrofoam, and the “pond” is made of a blue plastic material. Although Red Star is stone-faced in the photos, she is mocking the romanticized imagery that has become the unchanging monolithic face of Native American peoples.
Satire and humor are key components in Red Star’s work. “My immediate family, we’re very funny,” she said in a recent interview. “The community at large, Crows are really funny. Being from an oppressed culture, I think that humor is really part of the pressure release. Dealing with a lot of trauma that is happening within the community, there needs to be some sort of release. With the research and work that I do, it’s hard. It’s a lot of pretty heavy stuff, so I need that tension release. And that tends to show up in every work of mine.”
In the “Four Seasons Series,” Red Star is placed front and center, which in and of itself is defiant. Much of Native imagery is centered around male leaders. The documentation of women is at best peripheral to the larger Native visual narrative. The women that have been documented are defined within their relationship to a male. This is antithetical because Crow people, in particular, are originally a matriarchal culture.
“I am really interested in women’s roles,” Red Star said. “When I see Richard Russell’s photographs, of so many women and children, I’m automatically interested. That went against the patriarchal lens of the anthropologist of the time. It’s hard for me [to read] anthropologists’ accounts of Crows because it’s very much focused on men’s roles. And if a woman is brought up, she’s the wife of somebody. You’re missing a big part of the community, 50% of the community, by just focusing on the male role and what they did. I saw that with Edward Curtis’s photos as well.”
In 1899, Seattle photographer and ethnologist Edward S. Curtis went on an exploratory expedition where he encountered the Piegan Blackfeet tribe of Montana. He became enamored by what he called “primitive customs and traditions.” Nicknamed the “Shadow Catcher,” he captured important leaders like Geronimo, Red Cloud, Medicine Crow, and Chief Joseph. In his portraits, Curtis craftily created an aesthetic of Native people that pervaded society and became steeped in history. His images center mostly on men dressed in tribal threads with stoic expressions. Curtis often pushed his subjects to dress in traditional regalia to appear more exotic and play into larger white audiences’ ideas of Native people being “other.” That singular aesthetic is still buried deep in the larger collective consciousness of America.
“Those photos, even though they are problematic, it’s the history of colonization, the manifest destiny agenda, but they are records,” Red Star said. “I really look at them as records. I think they’re such important documents now. Somebody asked me, ‘Would you rather they not have been photographed?’ I’m like, ‘No way, not at all.’ Some of them have photographed my great-great-grandparents—I want that photo. And I can tell you more about the individual.”
In 1906, with $75,000 provided by banker J.P. Morgan, Curtis embarked on expeditions to document Native American life before it was gone. By the 1920s, he found the tribes he’d previously documented had been ravaged by relocation and assimilation. The resulting opus, “The North American Indian,” consists of 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of Native American languages and music; 40,000 photographs of members from over 80 tribes; and accounts of tribal lore, ceremonies, and funeral rituals.
Although the reality was that Indigenous children were being forced into boarding schools, banned from speaking their native languages, and coerced to cut their hair by the U.S. government, Curtis chose to not document Native Americans’ evolving political narratives and challenges. Instead, he continued to capture them in customary attire they had long ceased to wear—cementing an antiquated narrative and aesthetic that Red Star is fervently working to correct.
When Joseph Medicine Crow, a prestigious Native leader, was featured on the packaging of an iced tea beverage, Red Star dove deep to learn about the history and context of that photo. She learned that in 1880, the United States government had intentions of building railroad tracks through Crow hunting territory. Six Crow chiefs journeyed to meet with President Ulysses S. Grant in a heartfelt attempt to lobby against this plan of action. Subsequently, Red Star’s “1800 Crow Peace Delegation” photo series was born.
“This was a purpose for me. I really wanted to do this investigation and this work,” Red Star said. This series amends the collective knowledge deficit by seamlessly blending the dissonance between Native history and American history. “I’m trying to create a bridge for the viewer so they can have a better understanding,” Red Star said emphatically.
Wendy Red Star, Peelatchiwaaxpáash / Medicine Crow (Raven), from the series 1880 Crow Peace Delegation, 2014; from Wendy Red Star: Delegation (Aperture, 2022). © Wendy Red Star.
Consisting of 10 photographs of Crow chiefs taken in Washington, D.C., by Charles Milton Bell, the subjects wear regalia befitting their high rank—wreaking of royalty. The tone and aesthetic of these photos exhibit Curtis’s enduring influence. In each scanned photo, Red Star annotates in great detail information about the individual and the history and culture of Crow people. Red Star does what Curtis’s work fails to do: portray Native individuals as they truly are, whole people with depth and dimension.
The series features the chiefs Alaxchiiaahush/Many War Achievements/Plenty Coups, Déaxitchish / Pretty Eagle, Bia Eélisaash/Large Stomach Woman (Pregnant Woman)/Two Belly, and Peelatchixaaliash/Old Crow (Raven). In Alaxchiiaahush/Many War Achievements/Plenty Coups (2014), Red Star highlights the white clay in his hair, the name of his father—Medicine Bird—and his mother—Otter Woman—and the feather in his hair that indicates he’s a skilled warrior. Weaving humor into her work, some of Red Star’s annotations read, “I can kick your ass with these eyes,” or “I am not a fan of the white man.” In this body of work, Red Star is both artist and teacher, educating the masses on the unknown truths of real American history.
Wendy Red Star, Her Dreams Are True (Julia Bad Boy), 2021; from Wendy Red Star: Delegation (Aperture, 2022). © Wendy Red Star, Courtesy of Crow’s Shadow, Nika Blasser.
The cover of Delegation features the first quilt Red Star made. On it, she centers a black-and-white portrait of a young Native woman with two long sleek braids, supple skin, and gentle almond-shaped eyes. The work is an homage to her second great-grandmother Dreams The Truth, also known by her English name, Julia Bad Boy. If that surname is any indicator at all, it may explain Red Star’s relentless pursuit to course-correct historical narratives, challenge long-standing colonial ideas, and make work that shines a light on modern Native American experiences.