Native Pop! art show bursts the bubble on stereotypical Native American art

A vintage 1950s television broadcasts a new, colorful image inside its wood-paneled frame.

Artist Brent Learned remembers the black-and-white Indian-head test pattern often used by broadcast television stations into the 1970s. He recently mimicked the design in his piece “Stay Tuned...,” making it his own with splashes of bright, bold colors.

“If you grew up at a time where you saw that on TV before you went to bed or when you woke up, that would resonate and it had the Native image,” he said. “What I’m doing is reclaiming that, doing it in my own style and presenting it as a piece of art.”

“Stay Tuned...” exemplifies Learned’s mission for the Native Pop! group art show, which opens Friday and runs through July 28 in Paseo Plunge’s Exchange Gallery, 3010 Paseo St. An opening reception is 6-10 p.m. Friday.

Learned, a member of Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, said he worked with fellow artist and Native Pop! exhibitor Joe Hopkins over the last year to assemble a collection of works that challenge traditional Native American art concepts and reclaim cultural and historical narratives.

The show features 35 to 40 pieces, all for sale, including works by Learned, Hopkins, Bunky Echo-Hawk, Debra Yepa-Pappan, Gregg Deal, J. Nicole Hatfield, Ryan Red Corn, Steven Grounds, Dallin Maybee, Steven Paul Judd and Joshua Garrett.

Hopkins said he has noticed Native trends toward pop and street art in recent years, especially among younger artists. Like Learned, Hopkins enjoys using vivid colors in his work. Some of his art on display interjects grayscale images with lively intensity.

“You look at old black-and-white photos, and after a while, they all start to look the same,” Hopkins explained. “What I’m trying to do is to bring the old into the new.”

Bridging the public’s idea of what Native American art and people are is only one part of Native Pop!’s mission.

Claiming narratives

Many notable depictions of Native Americans originated outside of Native culture, Hopkins said. He cited Washington Redskins, Land O’Lakes butter and Crazy Horse malt liquor logos as examples.

“To the average viewer, you’re thinking, ‘Oh, well, they’re all cool with that.’ As Natives, we’re not cool with that,” Learned said. “We’re trying to reclaim that and say, ‘No, this is how we want to be seen; this is how we want to present ourselves.’”

He remembers the time he visited an American West-themed art show and met a cowboy painter whose art features a horse depicted with Learned’s traditional tribal paint and symbols. When he asked her what the symbols meant, she explained the tribe added them for decorative purposes, which Learned knew was not accurate.

Improperly depicting Native symbolism, whether artistically or commercially, damages tribes, people, culture and history, Learned said.

“You’re going to muddy the water up,” he said. “When people buy that product, they’re going to tell that false story, and that’s how lies get spread.”

Learned said people often discuss Native Americans as if they only exist in the past. The Native Pop! concept partly originated from a desire to expand awareness of modern Native life and art.

“As Native Americans, we reflect today’s society,” Learned said. “People think of us as being extinct and how we’re a non-entity. No; we’re still here.”

“Travois to a Pow Wow” is another Learned piece included in the show. A travois is a wooden, sled-like frame tribe members strapped to a horse to transport loads from place to place. In “Travois to a Pow Wow,” Learned painted a couple in traditional regalia on the window of a 1975 Ford car door.

“That’s how we move nowadays,” he said. “I’m taking something old and making it new again.”

Learned said it is often up to Native artists to properly teach others about who Natives are as people in a society that often misrepresents or minimizes their existence.

“We’re letting them know we’re not just in natural history museums,” he said. “We’re in art museums and galleries and we’re among you.”

Traveling exhibit

Learned and Hopkins said Native Pop!’s Paseo Plunge run is just the beginning. They both said galleries in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Portland expressed interest in hosting a similar exhibit. Since each piece in this group show is for sale, artists hope to put together a new, traveling exhibit that will tour the country.

Learned said Native American art collectors will be particularly interested in this exhibit.

“You get the younger generations who come up and they don’t want to hang the same stuff [as] their grandfather,” he said. “Every generation changes with the time, and that’s one of the things we’re doing.”

Hopkins said he hopes gallery guests learn more about contemporary Native art.

“The main goal is to bring awareness to the expansion of Native American art,” he said. “I think it’s going to blow a lot of people away.”

Print headline: Cultural Pop!, A Paseo Plunge exhibit celebrates contemporary Native American art and the people who create it.

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