A subtle but striking rectangle of wall text titled “Land Remembrance” greets visitors to the new exhibition Wendy Red Star: A Scratch on the Earth, which opened Friday at the San Antonio Museum of Art. The text establishes the groundwork necessary to appreciate the full complexity of the artwork on view:
The San Antonio Museum of Art is mindful of its location on the ancestral lands of the First Peoples of this area including the Esto’k Gna (Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe of Texas), the Tehuan Band of Mission Indians, the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation, and the many other local Native Peoples who have connections with this land.
Four artworks by Red Star on the opening wall, however, at first appear to set aside such solemnity in favor of subtle and mischievous humor. They are color-filled self-portraits of the artist in repose in various naturalistic settings depicting the four seasons, a traditional subject for artists from the ancient world to the present day.
Red Star flips the script, using artificial grass, nature view wallpaper with visible creases, plastic foam nuggets in place of snow, and an inflatable plastic elk to artificialize her seasonal settings.
Most striking in each image is the artist herself, dressed in the full regalia of her Crow people, with beaded headband, neckband and moccasins, and elaborate decorations featuring various traditional themes, including horses and tribal insignia. The contrast between her appearance and surroundings challenges how Native peoples have been depicted throughout history, generally from a colonial perspective and divorced from their true context.
White clay and bear grease
Red Star’s commentary becomes more overt in other works, particularly a timeline of Crow history from the 1900s to the present day, and two groups of modified portraits from 1800s-era Crow peace delegations sent to negotiate with the United States government.
The black-and-white portraits from the National Anthropological Archives are familiar as historical images, but Red Star has added a flurry of notations in corrective red ink. Her additions offer a mix of personal observations and apparent historical facts that re-humanize the staid figures, formerly drained of personality, language and names by the ethnographic effort to document Native Americans as generic representatives of “Indian” culture.
As a native of the Crow reservation knowledgeable about the history of her tribe, Red Star’s notations range from explanatory, such as “White clay bear grease pompadour” to describe the hairdo of Plenty Coups — a prominent Crow chieftain of the late 1800s, about whom book-length studies have been written — to restorative of his proud voice, with “I shook hands with Prince Albert of Monaco. He was lucky to shake my hand,” to damning, with a note that Plenty Coups “traded a big section of the reservation for two white hookers and a 5th of whiskey.”
Red Star’s notations also factor into the century-long historical timeline she first made for a 2017 exhibition at the CUE Foundation in New York and revisits here as a wrap-around wall installation in the exhibition hall’s corner gallery.
Titled Um-Basax-Bilua, “Where They Make the Noise” 1904-2016, breathes life into photographic depictions of Crow people gleaned from a mix of sources including National Geographic, the Getty Images collection and her own personal archive of family pictures.
The timeline reveals plentiful historical facts, such as “Crow floral beadwork with white backgrounds became popular in the ’20s-’30s,” while restoring the names of the figures depicted, including Myrtle Big Man in the white dress described.
Red Star herself appears multiple times in the timeline as a representative of her family lineage, the granddaughter of Amy Bright Wings Red Star, as an “awkward teenager” holding a can of Orange Crush soda and as the proud mother of daughter Beatrice, whose Crow name translates to “Sandhill Crane Woman.”
One notation is startingly current for anyone used to the relegation of Native American culture to a presumed past: Red Star’s relative Jaymeson Red Star named his horse “Snoop Dogg.”
Present day concerns
Curator Nadiah Rivera Fellah, who originated the exhibition with Tricia Bloom for the Newark Museum of Art, said Red Star insisted on emphasizing the contemporary art context rather than framing her work ethnographically or as based solely on her Native identity.
Fellah said that in working with Red Star, she grew to appreciate “the fact that her history as a Crow Indian is all of our history, really.”
While Red Star charts in great detail the history of efforts to preserve Indigenous lands, “that’s not just the history of her tribe, but it’s American history,” Fellah said.
That history is current, as themes in the exhibition that resonate with its presence in San Antonio demonstrate. The Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation has made repeated efforts to claim Indigenous human remains on the grounds of the Alamo, which have been rebuffed in part because the tribal group is not officially recognized by the federal government.
Fellah emphasized not only the contemporaneity of Red Star’s artwork but of how such federal designations continue to play out in the artist’s own personal life. Now associate curator of contemporary art at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Fellah worked with Red Star on a new piece for the current exhibition Picturing Motherhood Now that details the artist’s inability to have her daughter become a federally recognized member of the Crow Tribe because she does not meet the requirements.
“So she’s up against this hindrance, wanting to impart all of this heritage on her daughter, but knowing that there’s this barricade, very purposefully constructed by the U.S. government to prohibit, basically, the future generation of these tribes,” Fellah said.
The “Land Remembrance” cited above, arranged by each museum the show visits in collaboration with local Indigenous groups, demonstrates a greater willingness to engage members of Indigenous communities as fully present members of society, and representatives of an often unacknowledged crux of American history.
Wendy Red Star: A Scratch on the Earth will run through May 8 at the San Antonio Museum of Art, accessible with regular museum admission. The Mays Symposium: Contemporary Perspectives on Native American Art on Feb. 25 and 26 will feature a virtual keynote by Wendy Red Star.