Pop and disco tracks draw the visitor into the Denver Art Museum, their lyrics dancing across the brilliant beaded assemblages in Jeffrey Gibson’s first museum survey, ‘Like a Hammer’. Spanning 2011 to the present, the exhibition is a dazzling collision of materials and heritages. The Cherokee/Choctaw artist’s work interrogates the contemporary possibilities of Indigenous art and traditions with an exuberance that upends essentialist categorization, playing with text and material in order to craft more expansive perspectives on our ever boxed-in world.
The punching bags in his ‘Everlast’ series (2012–16) sway with the weight of handstitched glass beads, studs and tassels. The centrepieces of the exhibition, these bags combine the materials of contemporary powwow dance outfits with lyrics from gay club anthems, while the physical aggression summoned by their forms recalls the violence of colonialism. I’m Not Perfect (2014) reads one such bag, which combines three layers of silvery jingle cones, used in traditional Anishinaabe dance outfits, with a long, black nylon fringe in homage to Grace Jones, from whose 1986 song the work takes its title.
Gibson grew up ‘off-reservation’, rather than in what he considers to be a traditional community, and his work draws as much from music icons like Jones, George Michael and Nina Simone as from Indigenous visual culture. The marching chevrons and triangular patterning in bags like I Put a Spell On You (2015) are found in beading and weaving patterns across the Great Plains and southwestern US. Gibson undoes the opposition of art and craft that has relegated Indigenous material culture to the realm of curio and souvenir with his bright, often neon palette that pops against the subdued grey, pink and purple hues of the gallery walls. This brilliant scenographic decision by the show’s curator, John Lukavic, allows each bead to hum with an intensity unseen in the white cube galleries where the works have been previously displayed.
The political lands with a jarring gravitas. White Power (2012) is a fringed, white punching bag that evokes a wedding dress, even as its text directly addresses racist ideology. The red beaded text of In Numbers Too Big to Ignore (2016), referring to the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women, lends a sinister aspect to the cheery songs that play in the gallery, like Frankie Valli’s ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You’ (1967).
Yet, even as he points to the difficult legacies of colonialism, Gibson finds a way forward. Birds of a Feather (2017) is a one-metre-tall figure, faceless and suggestive of Hopi katsina dolls, but bedecked in beads, jingles and fringes. Here those materials become puffy shoulder pads and leggings befitting a disco diva or club kid. Gibson models these works on the pan-Indigenous practice of using dolls to teach children social norms. His dolls suggest a future in which difference will be expressed through dance, rather than racially motivated violence.
Gibson spent time working in museums, where he encountered many Indigenous robes, shawls and blankets that were made to be danced in but instead hung on walls as objects for aesthetic contemplation. This tension has long interested Gibson and in wall-hangings like What We Want, What We Need (2014), directly inspired by woven regalia such as Chilkat blankets, he makes heavy use of jingles and black and white fringe that beg to be felt and roused.
A video at the end of the exhibition, One Becomes the Other (2014–16), briefly satisfies this urge. It shows various collaborators and performers as they contemplate, speak to, drum and dance with pieces of beadwork and regalia from the museum’s collection. The video ends with an elder dancing into the shadowy halls of the museum’s storage stacks to a Round Dance cover of Culture Club’s ‘Time (Clock of the Heart)’ (1982). Walking back through the exhibition, each jingle and fringe becomes a site of potential vitality – unfolding Gibson’s play with Indigenous and contemporary culture into a horizon of possibility.
Jeffrey Gibson: Like A Hammer runs at Denver Art Museum until 12 August.
Main image: Jeffrey Gibson AMERICAN HISTORY (JB) (detail), 2015, mixed media, 226 × 168 × 13 cm. Courtesy: Jeffrey Gibson Studio and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles; photograph: Peter Mauney
First published in Issue 197