like a hammer

a video by Jeffrey Gibson called ‘one becomes the other’. the film is set in the Denver Art Museum. Indigenous people in ceremonial dress populate the film, examining artifacts on display throughout the museum and in the archives. I’m fascinated by the racist juxtaposition of what I perceive as “ancient” meeting the “modern” setting of the museum. But as the people demonstrate in every frame, they are very much alive. this culture lives on, despite the best attempts of the dominant culture in the united states.

Jeffrey Gibson’s exhibition Like a Hammer was on display at the Seattle Art Museum last spring. It’s one of the rare exhibits I’ve gone to see more than once. (Another fave was Gordon Parks’ Segregation Story at the High Museum). The exhibition space on the last night of the show was buzzing with energy. A person wearing a shirt that read “Indigiqueer and still here” caught my eye.

One of Jeffrey Gibson’s pieces is a video called On the Other Hand (above). Kealey Boyd at hyperallergic says, “The film is set in the Native American archives and art storage of the Denver Art Museum. We see a man speaking Kiowa pick up a hand drum from a shelf and begin to play. A woman in a long, white dress with colorful patterns enters the halls, dancing in time.”

The video moves me because it is both modern and historical. People with indigenous ancestry handle artifacts that once sat in someone’s home. At what precise moment does an item shift from “everyday object” to “artifact”? Set in a museum’s archives, the video also made me think about these pieces as art. I compared them to what American culture is used to seeing in museums: baroque paintings, snuff boxes, marble sculptures. Someone owned these priceless paintings before they landed in a museum. The cards nearby often state the former owner or the fact that it is a gift. What do these Indigenous artifacts say about their owners? Did they give these items in the same way?

The stereotypical Native American war bonnet is a classic example of cultural appropriation. An item worn by male leaders in some Plains Indian tribes is now divorced from its original intents. Now, colonizers wear it at outdoor festivals and halloween parties. We call it cultural appropriation because it’s stolen. It’s used without permission. It’s used without respect, by a person who has no connection to the object’s origin.

For me, an important component of cultural appropriation is profit. Another is power. Another is context. Rick Bayless took medium-low heat for making his fortune on mass-produced Mexican recipes. He argues that his knowledge of Mexican culture justifies his profit. But as many critics have pointed out to him, a white man in Oklahoma is likelier to receive a business loan. His family supported him while he spent his teenage years studying Mexican cuisine. He had to learn these recipes and techniques from experts in the field. But what happened to those teachers? What happened to the restaurant that inspired Taco Bell?

What I find interesting about Jeffrey Gibson’s work is his remix of cultures. The beadwork on punching bags links his heritage with that of his oppressors. With his art, he creates new artifacts for a culture that never went away.