August 10, 2012

Not Even Balasanas

by Jerome du Bois

[This piece (1) criticizes the short article "Animal Magnetism" by Tricia Parker in Phoenix New Times, specifically her casual racist blindness; (2) revisits several of our earlier articles to show the continuity of a scam; and (3) draws attention to the present cynical grifter's stance struck by all the race-gamers involved.

I also note that our detailed focus on this theme --refinements in the manipulations of racial identity as a brand-- dates to the beginnings of this blog, nine years ago. I will refer to two of Catherine King's definitive early essays below.]

You'd think it was one of Coyote's tricks: convincing Indian artists they're special simply because they're Tribal. But no, nothing so clever, merely 3rd-Gen Identity Politics, as sadly pervasive in our Trashy Culture as fat people. Consider a partial list, provided by nodding bobblehead Tricia Parker (click on the names for images of their works):

Rick Bartow (Wiyot tribe of California)
Jacob Meders (Mechoopda Maidu tribe of Chico Rancheria, California)
Tiffiney Yazzie (Navajo)
Steven Yazzie (Navajo/Laguna Pueblo)
Norman Akers (Osage Nation of Oklahoma)
Fritz Scholder (Luiseno, California Mission tribe)
John Hoover (Caleut, Alaska)
Julia Buffalohead (Ponca tribe, Oklahoma)
Jerome du Bois (Poi Dog Haole, Hawai'i)
Catherine King (1/64th Chippendale, Eastern US)

Okay, not those last two. But neither Ms. Parker nor the Berlin Gallery note that Rick Bartow's mother was a white woman; Steven Yazzie's mother was a white woman; John Hoover's father was Dutch, and his mother was Russian-Aleut; Fritz Scholder was part German. (At least America Meredith, also in the show, lists her lineage as Swedish-Cherokee on her website. But Ms. Parker doesn't mention that fact.)

European and American lineage doesn't count here, only the so-called indigenous ones. Why? Because many Native American artists, and their enablers, have followed the script first worked out behind brandished shotguns by the black power thugs at Cornell U. back in 1969: ethnic identity is immutable --and, soon enough, bankable. (See Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism, pp. 163-170.)

After the feminists and gender benders transmogrified black power in academia into Identity Studies --a panther turned into pancakes-- Native Americans bought into it as well. Why not? It made the road to money and security smoother and wider. Often as not, the money came from rich white people, such as Dwight and Maie Bartlett Heard. Or from government guarantees, or grants awarded through a sulking motivation that Catherine King calls "Da Guilted Frame."

But identity studies didn't make the art any better. Consider Beverly McIver, who has traded on her blackness for her whole career, but seems to paint everything with, literally, the same broad brush.

Nor does the art in "Extraordinary Animals Revisited" stand out as inimitably Native American in any way. And most of it is lazy, with sloppy brushwork, crude anatomy, and deadpan clichés, as you may see for yourself above. (Also in Julius Baldoni's mural at ASU. More on that below.)

Ms. Parker writes:

Coyote/trickster is everywhere. Native American myths teach us that an encounter with trickster changes us in some elemental way. The artists here, who continue to revisit one of art's age-old themes --animals-- force such encounters.

Anybody out there feel elementally changed? I didn't think so. Me neither.

The theme is not just animals, anyway. Images of anthropomorphism and metamorphosis go back as far as we can see, and as wide as we can scan, from Egypt to Siberia, from Greece to Ireland, from Mexico to Australia. Native American myths have their own established place among the images we have conjured about the uncanny dreamworld that dwells between us humans and everything else. But these artists shrink from that great strange land, because they simply haven't got the soul for it. And I don't mean some special Native American soul only available to them. I refer to our common conscience, our hard-won human sense of propriety. These artists traded their souls for an ersatz political identity, because it was the easy road to acceptance by a credentialed class.

We've seen this before.

* * * * *


Who am I to talk about Indians and Indian artists? Here's a short section from a piece I wrote about Brad Kahlhamer, another part-Indian artist, back in 2004:

[His exhibition was] called "Let's Walk West." Yeah, let's walk, man, see what we can see.

Because I have, Brad. This belagana, this white guy, walked the desert between Scottsdale and Mesa dozens of times, years ago, long before you even left for the City [New York] you didn't deserve or appreciate. I've lived in hogans and teepees, I've done vision quests, sweat lodges to make you faint, I've choked the peyote down right next to the Fire Tender, I've seen the otter skins dance in the long lodges near Black River, Wisconsin, I've seen the shadows of the bears swiping their paws at the drummers, and I've wrestled with the eagle on the South Dakota plain. I have stood outside the hogan north of Window Rock in the very shank of the night, night after night, rubbing my face with stars they were so close, a reassurance in a darkness so deep and bowel-freezing one could believe in everything. What do you know, balasana? What have you learned in your walk?

I don't really need to establish my bona fides anyway. It wouldn't matter if I had never stepped onto a reservation or met a Native American. The scam remains the same. Consider Mr. Baldoni's mural. It's contained within a department at Arizona State University called American Indian Student Support Services. If you read their website you find nothing that isn't offered to other students:

The primary purpose of AISSS is to increase the retention and graduation rates of American Indian students, increase individual academic achievement levels, empower students to be resourceful, assist students to be resilient when challenged by academic pressure, provide positive social/cultural experiences and to sustain the administrative function of AISSS. In this effort, AISSS provides students a number of support services including a computer lab, links to tutorial services, study area, advising/referral service, workshops, graduate opportunities, and access to information about scholarship/internships.

But because they're Indians, they get a special resource, paid for by Arizona taxpayers. It's a grift: note the phrase to sustain the administrative function of AISSS. Don't ever forget to pay the Indian Giver.

Here's another section from a piece I wrote in 2007, called The Loser Tribe:

[begin quote] And let me give you the lowdown on the way Baker and Co. deal the racist three-card-monte: you'd think they can't have it both ways, but they do, at least with the crowd they've shucked down there [at the Heard Museum]. Consider the turgid title of the exhibition:

Remix: New Modernities in a Post-Indian World

Let's take apart that strangulator and examine its components. "Remix" comes from early DJ culture --appropriation and sampling-- and the crucial element in those actions was respect for the original. Tip your brim, pay your respects, and don't distort the original beyond recognition. Nothing like that here. In fact, these artists insult Native American cultures from jump city, from the get-go. In fact, they insult everybody else except abject self-hating losers like them. I'll give details below.

"New Modernities" is either redundant or parodic. What would "old modernities" be? Or do you have to buy the catalog to find out? Not really; it's the oldest advertiser's trick ever: put "new" in your pitch, if not in your product. We spent our twenty bucks elsewhere.

"Post-Indian World." Here's where they want it both ways. They don't want to be stereotyped and "marginalized" as Indian artists, but they don't ever want you to forget that they're Indian artists. (Most especially on grant applications, hmmm?) Even today they will exploit a nonexistent racial barrier. Here's a quote from Joe Baker in a squib from a local rag:

“Why are indigenous artists not allowed to celebrate the present as other artists do? Why do we require of Native artists a myth or fantasy, an iconography?”

"Not allowed?" "Require"? And who is this "we" he speaks of? The white racist male hegemony monster of yore? Well, that's a straw man that doesn't exist. Any artist of any ethnicity can do anything nowadays, more's the pity, and exploit their bloodlines with mercenary grins, and Joe Baker damn well knows it. I'm surprised he isn't falling asleep in the middle of his tiresome monologue by now, so many times has he dragged this dead horse onto the Heard Museum stage, or any open mike he can find.

Hey, Loser Tribe, make up your minds: are you Indians, or Post-Indians, or Post-Non-Indians? Artists of Mixed Color? The Beige Ones? [end of quote]

They're not even balasanas, which is the Navajo word for apple --red on the outside, white on the inside. What they want is to maintain control of their manipulation of their identity, and disparage anyone who calls that manipulation into question. Let's take as an example the well-known Steven Yazzie. In 2009, in an interview for AzCentral, he said:

I've never looked at myself as a Native American artist. The time I did spend in school, I felt I was learning more about the craft from people in the community. But at some point in an artist's career, you have to decide if you're going to . . . do the things you need to do. . . . A couple years ago, I started applying to residencies. The Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture really changed my life, my work.

I'll bet it did, and I'll bet a big part of it was that he was a Native American artist -- a turkey feather in the cap of Skowhegan.

The guy can do no wrong, no matter how silly his ideas. His "waterbed" with the hubcap bedspread was on the cover of the "Remix" catalog. And here's an example, from our piece "Dazed and Confused in the Glittering World," from 2007, of an even dumber idea.

[Here's the peripatetic Joe Baker, long-time miner of government sinecures, going over the top for Yazzie's ridiculous performance of driving a go-cart on the Rez and trying to draw at the same time:]

For decades, Monument Valley was used as a backdrop in Hollywood Westerns that depicted American Indians in racist terms. These films fed into a mythology of the American West in which Indians were either stoic noblemen or fierce savages. In “Draw Me a Picture,” Yazzie challenges these stereotypes of Indian identity by re-envisioning this landscape from a fresh, alert vantage point.

From the driver’s seat of a self-styled art car, Yazzie winds along a red dirt road into Monument Valley while simultaneously creating drawings-in-motion of the dramatic red rock formations passing by. Powered only by gravity, the art car is “part sculpture, part rolling studio” according to curator Joe Baker. “Fitted with an attached easel, [the car] allows the artist to be in motion while drawing the advancing landscape.” The entire process is captured on film.

“Draw Me a Picture” shatters outmoded thinking about Indians by offering a new representation of this well-known American landscape. According to Baker, “through his actions and urgent drawings of Monument Valley, [Yazzie] reclaims this picture, making it his own by creating images that are free of expectations and stereotypical gestures of ‘Indianess.’ The final result is drawing that is alert to self, place, and time.”

The final result is drawing that doesn't look even a smidgeon like Monument Valley, and an Indian so swathed in safety devices --white helmet, reflective jumpsuit, red warning flags-- you'd think he was a porcelain doll. We've come a long way from counting coup, apparently. (I know, I know, that wasn't the Navajo.) And Joe Baker's trumpeting hits all the pomo flat notes: shatters outmoded thinking --reclaims this picture-- making it his own-- alert to self, place, and time. [end of excerpt]

Yazzie thought it was such a great idea he repeated the performance in several other locations--"Glenn Canyon: The Chains; Glenn Canyon: Page; Mount Humphery: Snowbowl Road; South Mountain: Dobbins Run; Saguaro National Park"-- combined the scribblings with some videos, and the Phoenix Art Musuem bought the result.

The guy's golden. The art is crap, but it doesn't matter. As long as our Trashy Culture buys into the myth that racial identity is somehow separate from generic human identity, somehow mysteriously numinous and special, then grifters of all ethnicities will profit.

Posted by Jerome at August 10, 2012 08:15 PM | TrackBack
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