Genius Artist Reinterprets Brooklyn’s Native American Archives

Moccasins at the feet of 1904 Dying Indian sculpture by Charles Cary Rumsey. On Gibson’s mural, a study for Rumsey’s Manhattan Bridge buffalo-hunt frieze.

The Brooklyn Museum invited a MacArthur genius to dig through its vast Native American collection and archives, use it alongside his own thought-provoking contemporary art work, and take visitors minds for a spin. The colorful, creative, memorable results are on display across three galleries in Jeffrey Gibson: When Fire Is Applied to a Stone It Cracks, on view through January 10. Take a look in our Flickr album.

Gibson, a big thinker whose heritage is Choctaw/Cherokee, does work that challenges people to think differently about Native Americans today and to question the assumptions about their “disappearance” from the national dialogue. Flying above art-world silos, he works at large and small scales, employs colleagues who are experts in beadwork and mural making, and shows art-gallery works as well as more conceptual projects.

Custom 19th and early 20th-century moccasins from the Brooklyn Museum collection.

His Brooklyn show begins by presenting a monumental 1904 “Dying Indian” bronze by Victorian-era classical artist, Charles Cary Rumsey, and an array of moccasins from the museum’s collections made by unknown tribal artists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

To the right, there’s a giant stained-glass work that says, “Whose World Is This? It’s Yours It’s Mine.” To the left, there’s a colorful gallery packed with Gibson’s contemporary art work, and historic beaded, painted, and pieced items made by tribal artists.

Scores of museum visitors who exited Brooklyn’s Studio 54 show were captivated by Gibson’s dynamic installation, entered, and explored.

Gibson’s stained-glass Whose World Is This? It’s Yours It’s Mine. Private collection.

Below the massive statue, Gibson wants us to witness how carefully Native American makers created and customized footwear for specific practical purposes and ceremonial occasions for specific individuals. Unfortunately, the beautiful beadwork and deft, custom designs by tribal craftsmen are unattributed – a contrast to the society artist’s imposing vision of Native Americans who are sad, vanquished, and gone.

To change the statue’s narrative, Gibson asked contemporary Pawnee/Cree artist John Little Sun Murie to design moccasins for the figure atop Rumsey’s horse, so the rider is now presented as an individual member of an historic tribe – not just a generalized stereotype. Listen as Jeffrey talks about moccasins:

To drive home the point that Victorian-era artists and anthropologists incorrectly generalized and romanticized Native Americans, Gibson adds two other small bronzes and a study for Rumsey’s buffalo-hunting frieze made to embellish the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge. (Just ignore the fact that the Lenape didn’t hunt buffalo on our shores!) His beaded works say it all – “I Don’t Belong to You” and “You Don’t Belong to Me.”

Gibson’s 2018, Tribes File Suit to Protect Bears Ears.

In the second gallery, Gibson shows his own recent creations with those bought on early 20th-century expeditions and added to Brooklyn’s ethnographic collection.

Gibson’s bright, geometric murals – which complement the museum’s vintage geometric-patterned tiled floors – provide a joyful backdrop for a brightly colored Seminole jacket, beaded hats, and other art. Gibson’s new paintings, sculptures, and patchwork garments use beads, colors, and messages on fabric – contemporary statements that hearken to the creativity and innovation of these unattributed artists. Take a look:

Ba:lawahdiwa, Zuni’s governor, and his family in 1890

The final gallery presents other artifacts and art that Gibson curated from museum’s vast Native American holdings, expedition records, and archives, and contrasts them with some of Gibson’s recent photography.

A large case displays a range of commercial, ancient, and ceremonial pots, expedition photographs, and drawings of Pueblo life made by expedition artists over 100 years ago. In one instance, Gibson reunites several photos of a Zuni family, normally stored apart from one another the museum’s archives.

Gibson relishes showing how Native American artists still thrive today and how over the centuries they have adapted their materials and creativity for both commercial art-markets and their own expressive purposes.

Gibson’s 2019 photo Regan De Loggans. Courtesy: Gibson & Sikkema Jenkins

For example, he features a photograph of a young early 20th-century Navajo weaver, creating traditional Indian” rugs for a trading post with new, more colorful materials that Mr. Hubbell supplied. Gibson also unearthed a tourist map on where to find different California tribes and buy their wares – a direct rebuke to the concept that all these people “vanished.”

Best of all, Gibson also features several gorgeous recent photographs, including tribal artist-activists.

Visit Jeffery’s studio in this video produced for the 2019 Whitney Biennial. Hear him talk about his evolution, his creative process, and his team up in Hudson:

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