‘Native artists are hot right now’

When I visited Wendy Red Star at her studio in south-east Portland, she described her work as that of a “visionary” rather than an artist. “I don’t think I’m an artist, at least not in the western sense,” she said. “I’ve never tailored my stuff to fit in the art world.”

The products of her vision were scattered all around us, illuminated by the late-morning sun: sculpture, mixed-media installations and many, many photographs of Native Americans. Some of these were archival images of long-dead ancestors that she had annotated and embellished with red pen, others surrealist self-portraits that seem to cast the artist as the star of Technicolor melodramas satirising white views of Native American life in the 19th and 20th centuries. In “Fall”, for example, from her 2006 self-portrait series Four Seasons, Red Star sits alongside an inflatable deer in front of a painted backdrop, dressed in the ornate regalia of the Crow people, a Native tribe indigenous to America’s northern plains. All around her are plastic flowers and leaves that evoke the artificiality of indigenous life as dramatised by natural history museum dioramas.

Red Star, who is 43, told me that early works like Four Seasons were partly about grappling with the misconceptions surrounding Native identity. She grew up on the Crow reservation in rural Montana, where her father worked as a rancher and her mother as a nurse. Having both Apsáalooke (Crow) and Irish blood, she told me, made her a bit of an outsider and an introvert on the reservation. But she took inspiration from a creative family, which included her uncle, the painter Kevin Red Star. She went to art school at Montana State University, then earned a Master of Fine Arts in sculpture at UCLA, where she remained an outsider because of her indigenous identity and her aversion to an art education that, she felt, focused “on the kinds of exhibitions and residencies necessary for building a career in the art world”.

After getting her MFA in 2006, Red Star moved to Portland and eschewed this kind of careerism and networking to immerse herself deeper in study, first by sitting in on Native Studies courses at a local university, then by exploring the collection of Native American art at the Portland Art Museum. It was there, she told me, that one curator’s description of indigenous regalia, pottery and beadwork as “art objects”, rather than tools and clothing, made her reconsider the relationship between what she had studied in university and the sewing and beadwork that her grandmother had learnt to do as an ordinary member of Crow society.

“The community would never think of her as an artist in the art world context in which the museum was trying to place these objects,” Red Star said. “But I was like: Oh, I guess my grandma’s an artist.”

Despite her resistance to chasing mainstream success, Red Star’s work has found its way to some of the art world’s most prestigious institutions. These include New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where she has exhibited work, and which, along with the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and London’s British Museum, has her works in its permanent collection. And Red Star’s work is currently on view at the South London Gallery as part of Acts of Resistance: Photography, Feminisms and the Art of Protest, which explores the role of photography as a means of fighting injustice around the world. 

Dressed in black jeans, black boots and a black cardigan, with her long, dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, Red Star led me to a large worktable in the centre of her sprawling steel and cement studio. On the table were several paintings which are part of an ongoing series, now numbering in the hundreds, showing faithful renderings of parfleche, a kind of satchel made from animal hide and decorative pigments. These were produced by the indigenous tribes of the American plains region to store and transport clothing, dried food and other sundries. “They’re basically rawhide suitcases that plains women, for the most part, made,” Red Star said, walking over to a large row of cabinets to retrieve a parfleche that she had bought from an auction house: an envelope-like slab of cream-coloured rawhide roughly the same length and width as her own torso, and about half as thick as a bible, decorated with a repeating diamond pattern of blue, red, green and yellow.

‘121 Crazy’, Parfleche Studies, 2023 © Wendy Red Star
‘168 Flower’, Parfleche Studies, 2023 © Wendy Red Star

Red Star calls her parfleche paintings “studies”. “I’m actually trying to learn from them,” she told me. When visiting museums she obsessively photographs parfleche, which she also tracks down by spending hours searching auction house catalogues and eBay. “I’ve taken it upon myself to try and find as many parfleche as I can find,” she said, and she has so far gathered 336 examples into a series of large binders. Occasionally, her research yields insights previously lost on the curators and collectors in possession of these artefacts. “When these were originally made, they were made in pairs,” and hung from saddles, though it’s rare to find them presented that way in collections and museums. “They’ve been separated a lot of the time, so there’s been instances where I found one, like in the Chicago Field Museum, and then the other one is in the Denver Art Museum. And that’s always super exciting, to find the pairs.” In her paintings, she depicts them side by side, united in their sets.

This enthusiasm for research is characteristic of Red Star’s work, which is often as much about discovery and documentation as the realisation of a particular idea. Beyond her interest in the geometric designs on Crow tobacco bags, or the elaborate beadwork seen on utilitarian accessories, Red Star seems most interested in the people who created, used and left behind such artefacts. “In the process of collecting these, nobody really recorded the makers, so it’s really rare to find the maker,” she said. To memorialise this dehumanisation, Red Star sought out census records from 1885 to 1940 so she could give each of her parfleche studies a name, not one based on its actual maker, but on a real plains Indian woman likely to have used or made one herself.

Census records from Red Star’s own community in Montana have informed other works, including “Her Dreams Are True (Julia Bad Boy)”, which shows a black-and-white photograph of her great-great grandmother reproduced on each edge of the print against a colourful backdrop inspired by Crow quilt patterns. Its title refers to the corruption of indigenous naming conventions by census takers: Crow people had just one name, and the notion of given names and surnames was imposed on them when the US government gave them Christian names.

‘Her Dreams Are True (Julia Bad Boy)’, 2021 © Wendy Red Star

Crow society, like that of my own ancestors from Alaska, the Tlingit, is matrilineal. But the state also imposed the patriarchal custom of identifying women by the Christian surname given to the male heads of their households on Crow families. Red Star’s great-great grandmother, whose Crow name translates as Her Dreams Are True, was given the name Julia and a surname the government had assigned to her father. “So her Christian name is Julia Bad Boy.”

Transforming genealogy into art requires a degree of obsession. Red Star spread copies of handwritten census ledgers across the table and started pointing out Christian names that crudely mimic the descriptive quality of the Crow names they replaced and serve as reminders of forced assimilation, but which nevertheless delight her. Julia Bad Boy was there as well, prompting Red Star to show me another piece which features her great-great grandmother, one which is now on view at South London Gallery. For the installation, called “Amnía (Echo)”, she recreated the photo of Julia Bad Boy twice, once as a self-portrait, and once as a black-and-white portrait of her daughter Beatrice. All three subjects appear side by side, each made up of 10 layered prints that get progressively larger, making it appear that Red Star, her daughter and Julia Bad Boy are radiating outward as echoes of themselves and each other. On the wall behind the photographs is a long list of translated Crow names sourced from the Indian census rolls.

‘Amnía (Echo)’, 2021 © Wendy Red Star

Almost as soon as we sat down on the comfortable furniture at the back of the studio, our conversation turned towards the art market’s attitude towards Native identity, as if this were a subject too irritating to discuss standing up.

“Native artists are hot right now,” Red Star said. “But if I get into that dynamic of what the art world elevates, if I get wrapped up in that stuff, it’s very torturous for me.” There is a push and pull familiar to any Native artist, she said, between the need to prove oneself and the suspicion that one is being asked to play a role. Many indigenous artists of her generation came up through galleries specialising in Native American art, “and most of those curators are anthropologists,” she told me. “They don’t have an art history background.”

‘Apsáalooke Feminist #1’, 2016 © Wendy Red Star

She finds that indigenous concepts are often lost in translation, so that white audiences tend to conflate land stewardship for utopianism, and matrilineal traditions with western feminism. “They’re like: Crows are feminist,” Red Star said. “And it’s like: no. Actually, we did have a chief system, and it can be very patriarchal on the reservation.” For this reason, she felt it was important to take a subtle approach when South London Gallery invited her to appear in the Acts of Resistance exhibition. “Conjuring the names of the women and girls that have been lost” and “finding this photo of my great grandmother and then making artwork with my daughter” made it feel as if her female ancestors were “reverberating through time”.

What fascinated me most, I told her, was how these reverberations were made possible by the bureaucracy of settler colonialism. “In one way it’s horrible, and in another way I really like the census record for the mere fact that I can find all my family and I can have a better understanding of why we’re in the situation that we’re in,” Red Star said. “What’s so weird to me is that they tried to eradicate us, but they also thought we were interesting enough to collect all our cultural items and preserve them.” Ultimately, using “the tools” of colonialism to create indigenous art is not much of a choice, she told me, because “it’s all we have left”.

“Acts of Resistance: Photography, Feminisms and the Art of Protest” is at South London Gallery until June 9. A collaborative group exhibition organised with the South London Gallery and the V&A’s Parasol Foundation Women in Photography Project

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