Native fashion is hip: Native American costumes are sold by the thousands every Halloween, partygoers and celebrities are photographed donning pasted feather headdresses, and some sports teams still brand themselves using Native American themes. Although some argue that these actions express admiration rather than disrespect, cultural appropriations such as these can reinforce Native American stereotypes, and relegate Native peoples to the realm of mythology and fantasy. This romanticization ignores historical context and can quickly turn abusive, such as in the case of the fashion fiasco of 2011 when Navajo Nation sued Urban Outfitters for selling 21 falsely branded “Navajo” items including the “Navajo Hipster Panty” and a flask with “Navajo prints.
Shapeshifting: Transformations in Native American Art, by Karen Kramer Russell accompanies an exhibition on view at the Peabody Essex Museum until April 29, comes at a very relevant time, challenging the misconceptions about Native Americans and Native American art. Combating assumptions of a homogeneous Native American “style,” the exhibition represents work from diverse Native American cultures, rituals, and traditions. This vast collection travels through space and time, including more than 75 works from traditional ceramics and textiles to contemporary video installations, representing artists from northern Canada to the southernmost tip of South America, and dating from 200 B.C.E. to the present day.
The show opens with an installation by Cree artist Kent Monkman, an 18-foot-tall tipi strung together with glittering plastic beads and a chandelier. Monkman projects a video on fake bullhide, featuring his glamorous transvestite alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. This film, satirically based on the “romantic savage” descriptions found in the diaries of painters George Catlin and Paul Kane, shows Miss Chief Eagle Testickle seducing drunken Caucasian men and dressing them up as “authentic” examples of the European male. In this piece, Monkman critiques “the dominant Euro-American ethnocentric construction of Native North America embedded in a global consciousness.” Like Monkman, many Native artists in the exhibit comment on cultural authenticity, challenging the objectification of Native identity.
My Aunt Viola (1996), a painting by Judith Lowry, is based on a photograph of her aunt parading as a stereotypical “Indian” for a temporary job at her county fair. The costume includes a Plains-style headdress and Southwestern-style textiles wrapped around her shoulders— neither of which was worn by Native California Indians at the time.
Native American art and culture is often portrayed as a thing of the past. As Dan Monroe, the executive director of the Peabody Essex explained it, “Native American art has long been pigeon-holed as craft, artifact, or primitive art. Many people assume Native American art terminated in 1880.” Shapeshifting strives to tear down the separation between Native American art and artifact, instead exploring the links and continuities between historical and contemporary works. James Luna challenges this issue in his performance artwork “Artifact Piece. ” In this piece, Luna lies motionless inside a glass exhiibtion case. Labels surround his body, identifying his name and claiming that the scars on his body are due to “excessive drinking.” By blatantly exhibiting himself as a museum specimen, Luna uses his body to challenge the objectification of Native American cultures in Western museum and cultural displays.