Bill Anthes is a Professor in the Art Field Group at Pitzer College. His latest book, Edgar Heap-of-Birds, is the first book-length study of contemporary Native American artist Edgar Heap of Birds. Anthes analyzes Heap of Bird’s art and politics in relation to Native American history, spirituality, and culture, the international art scene, and how his art critiques the subjugation of Native Americans. Anthes is also the author of Native Moderns: American Indian Painting, 1940-1960 (2006).
When did you first learn of Edgar Heap of Birds and his art? What was the first work of his that you saw?
I first became aware of Heap of Birds’s art in the early 1990s, as a handful of native North American artists were breaking into the contemporary art world, through exhibitions such as the Decade Show in New York, and in the writing of critics such as Lucy Lippard, whose work has always advocated for artists of color, feminists, and others outside of the commercial mainstream. Heap of Birds’s works were also shown alongside a cohort of native artists in a series of exhibitions in the United States and Canada mounted in 1992 to counter official commemorations of the Quincetennial of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. Heap of Birds and native artists including Carl Beam, Rebecca Belmore, Jimmie Durham, Bob Haozous, George Longfish, James Luna, Alan Michelson, Edward Poitras, Kay Walkingstick, Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie, and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith exhibited works that were fully engaged with the critical discourses of contemporary art as they mounted powerful critiques of the settler colonialism and its legacies.
The first work I saw would have been either the Native Hosts series – placards which recognize the native nations that claim sovereignty over the places where they are installed as well as defamiliarize the settler names for those places—or perhaps his Building Minnesota, which honors Dakota warriors who were hanged by the United States for their efforts defending their homelands during the Sioux War of 1862. As a descendent of settlers and immigrants, I grew up on what I learned much later was the traditional Cheyenne and Arapahoe homeland along the front range of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. For a non-native westerner, Heap of Birds’s artworks offered a quick and disorienting American history lesson.
Additionally, these works taught me a lot about contemporary art—as a critical and activist practice—and about what Native American art might be in a contemporary context. Native Hosts and Building Minnesota were machine-fabricated metal placards that, like many of Heap of Birds’s public art installations, appropriated the look and voice of state or corporate authority. Heap of Birds’s projects are sometimes criticized—or more often just misunderstood—because they don’t “look like” Native American art, which means they don’t conform to many non-native viewers’ expectations that art made by a Native person will be made with natural materials. (Of course we usually forget that many of the materials most commonly associated with Native American art and culture were imports—horses, glass beads—that were readily adapted by native peoples as they faced a changing landscape a new political situation. There’s a quote by artist Jimmie Durham that I like to share with my students and which nicely sums up the native ability to appropriate foreign objects, languages, and ideas to use in the struggle to protect and nurture native communities and people: “Every object, every material brought in from Europe was taken and transformed with great energy. A rifle in the hands of a soldier was not the same as a rifle that had undergone Duchampian changes in the hands of a defender, which often included changes in the form by the employment of feathers, leather, and beadwork.”
How did your conversations with Edgar Heap of Birds allow you to understand his work in ways that differed from when you started?
When I began this project, I had recently completed my first book, Native Moderns, in which I had tried to argue that Native American artists had produced a kind of modernist art in the mid-twentieth century, and that this was an important episode in the history of American modernism, even as it unsettled certain assumptions and habits of thought about the modernist canon (for example the assumption that modernism is primarily an urban cultural expression). I had also been thinking about contemporary Native American artists who had since the early 1990s begun appearing in some of the major venues and institutions of the contemporary art world, including the new biennials and art fairs that we associate with our current global moment. But despite these appearances on the global contemporary art stage, the work of native artists was not figuring into the discourses that were coming to define the moment—issues of transnationalism and exile, for example, which figure in the work of many artists today from Africa or Asia. I had planned, based on the thinking that had lead me to write Native Moderns, that a book about Heap of Birds’s art would argue first and foremost for his global currency, and to an extent this book still attempts to do that. But based on my being in conversation with the artist over many years, and based on a close study of his practice, and perhaps most profoundly on my experience of being with Edgar and his family as he took part in the Cheyenne Earth Renewal ceremony (sometimes called the Sun Dance) on the Cheyenne-Arapaho homelands in Oklahoma, I wrote a book that focused on the work’s grounding in a specific place and a profoundly indigenous and Cheyenne way of seeing and being in the world. As in Native Moderns, this led me to argue that attention to Heap of Birds’s work—and the work of contemporary Native American artists (and by extension the work of indigenous artists globally)—suggests other key terms and framings of the contemporary than are currently part of the conversation about contemporaneity.
As you mention in the book’s introduction, four is an important number in Cheyenne and other Plains Native cultures. How did you come to decide on using a structure of four chapters for your book? Was it clear from the start, or something that you developed during your research and writing?
That decision was very much a product of time spent with the work and the artist and the experience of the Earth Renewal ceremony, which is organized around repeated units of four—referencing the four seasons and the four directions—to ensure the efficacy of the ceremony. It started becoming clear to me after that how much of Heap of Bird’s work is organized in multiples of four, and that his ongoing series of abstract landscape paintings are also called Neuf, or four in the Cheyenne language. I was looking for an organization for the book that would allow me to approach the work in some way other than by chronology, or in terms of specific media (like painting, prints, and public art) as it became clear that Heap of Birds’s artistic thinking travels backwards and forwards in time. Key phrases and ideas appear in various media at many different points in his career, and I began to see this as an artistic practice that was centered in a place, more so than in time, or rather that the timeline one could follow in the work was more a spiral than a future-oriented trajectory. It was “always returning back home,” as Heap of Birds writes in several projects. That’s very much an idea, I think, that is taught in the Earth Renewal and in Plains and native cultures generally, and it was important to me that the book find an organization that come from a native epistemology, rather than the (now standardized and conventionalized) historiography of the contemporary in art history.
The thematic approaches of your chapters—Land, Words, Histories, Generations—provide generous containers for discussing the complexities of Edgar Heap of Birds’s work. For instance Land allows you both the Neuf paintings—abstract paintings inspired by landscape—and Heap of Birds’s conceptual signs in the Native Hosts series. For an artist who works in such a wide-variety of media, what was your process for distilling it down to these themes?
Indeed Heap of Birds has maintained an ongoing practice in a range of media, and it would have been possible, I suppose, to write a chapter on the paintings, and another on the public art installations, and another on the prints, for example. But the main themes—land or sovereignty, the power of language, history and ideas about historicity, and a commitment to the next generations, which is different, I think, than the notions of futurity one finds in modernism, or the “end of history” as figured in much contemporary art and theory—these themes cut across all of Heap of Birds’s practice and conceptual touch stones. I wouldn’t necessarily call Heap of Birds a conceptual artist, or a “post-studio” artist, as there is a daily practice of art making—painting, but often research and writing, as well—in which these key themes are explored and developed and returned to over and over again, regardless of the medium.
Often a drawing is a collection of words or phrases, and Heap of Birds also exhibits works in diverse media together in one space. So it was a matter of finding those themes, and then selecting works that spoke to them in a compelling way. I rearranged my choices for each chapter a few times, and some bodies of work do reappear in more than one chapter—I liked how that seemed to resonate with the idea that Edgar’s artistic trajectory is a spiral, rather than a timeline. There would have been many ways to arrange works to speak to those themes because, I think, all of Heap of Birds’s works speak to each of those four themes. So I tried to find works that would speak in a particularly compelling way, and not worry too much about media, although in the Words chapter, for example, I do follow something like a chronological or biographical path because Edgar has at various points made specific decisions about media and materiality to express those ideas as they evolved in his artistic thinking. And I as wrote in the introduction, I never imagined this a catalog raisonné. I imagined the book as the four interconnected essays that might open up Heap of Birds’s practice for new readers as well as audiences who have followed his work for many years.
You mention how Heap of Birds’s describes his artwork as a ‘puncture.’ Do you think that the provoking and political nature of Edgar Heap of Birds’s work is a factor that causes some museums to shy away from showing it? A contrast to this is Wheel, a large outdoor sculpture commissioned by the Denver Museum of Art, which you also discuss as one of Heaps of Birds’s most ambitious works to date.
I don’t think it’s so much that museums and institutions shy away from art that makes a political statement, or introduces a “puncture.” That would rule out all but the most banal and formalist contemporary art. I wrote in the introduction that I think the main reason that Heap of Birds and other contemporary Native American artists lack a certain visibility in the contemporary art world is that their politics are, in a sense, illegible to mainstream audiences. Native (and more broadly and globally indigenous) experiences of settler colonialism and the very powerful and important concepts of sovereignty are just not, or not yet, part of the conversion around contemporary art today. Native artists espouse a connection to place that seems at odds to the always-on, interconnected world of globalization and neo-liberal political economy. Tuscarora artist and critic Jolene Rickard refers to this as a “shared ancient imaginary,” and I think that it’s in some ways antithetical to the ways in which we currently imagine contemporaneity. In some ways it’s the old stereotype that Native Americans are a “people of the past” and thus not part of contemporary art. When native artists do appear on the contemporary art world’s global stage, they often do so under limited and prescribed circumstances and pretexts – as exemplars of a kind of anti-modernity, fulfilling fantasies of a primitive spiritual wholeness or environmentally-harmonious life ways. These one-dimensional representations suggest that native people are not part of the shared time of globalization. I think we need to reframe those notions – of the contemporary and of the key terms for global contemporary art. If Heap of Birds’s political statements strike some viewers or museum or gallery professionals as unthinkable (or unexhibitable) perhaps it’s because it remains nearly impossible for many audiences to imagine a contemporary Native politics.
You write, “Looking outward from a lodge on a hilltop in Oklahoma to the global spaces of the contemporary art world, we might begin a different conversation about the contemporary.” You’re making an important point by writing about art that is made outside of major art centers. Why in our global and virtually connected society is this still such a challenge? These different conversations seem necessary and vital.
I agree, and I think that especially in a global art world it is very important to not grow complacent about what we think we know. There is an emerging historiography of the contemporary and I think the notion that the art world has been decentered might lead us to think that artists and communities everywhere have equal access to its institutions. But of course there are many art worlds and what we think of as contemporary art is really just one, elite sector (with very good PR!). Artists in countless locations and perspectives have taken many different and in some cases mutually incomprehensible positions vis-à-vis contemporaneity. This isn’t to say that the many art worlds are “separate but equal,” which of course is never true. There is of course inequality. And then there are artists who might choose to travel through many art worlds, like I think Edgar has done. The experience of witnessing the Earth Renewal was, for me, one of the most powerful contemporary art experiences I have ever had, but even to say that kind of trivializes it because we have such limited notion of what contemporary art is or can be. The view from a lodge on a hilltop in Oklahoma is, for me, very important because it suggests something about what a contemporary art practice and a history of contemporary art can be, something that is global – and perspective changing—in the most meaningful sense.
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