wendy red star's art celebrates the indigenous roots of feminism
Her new exhibit explores Native American ideologies and the forgotten history of the Crow tribe.
Wendy Red Star,Winter—The Four SeasonsSeries, 2006.Archival pigment print on sunset fiber rag, 23 x 26 in. (58.4 x 66 cm).TheNewark Museum, Gif tof Loren G. Lipson, M.D., 20162016.46.1.3 © Wendy Red Star
When I first hop on the phone with multimedia artist Wendy Red Star, she mentions her father is on the other line because a new baby horse has been born and he’s really excited about it. “He's still living on the reservation and only gets cell reception in one place,” she tells me. I tell her I don’t mind the interruption and suggest she take the call. I mean, I would be excited, too.
Red Star, who grew up on the Apsáalooke (Crow tribe) reservation near Billings, Montana, admits it was not until she studied art during university that she started questioning her Indigenous roots and making work in response to it. “Why did it take me so long to ask these questions?” she asks rhetorically. Since then, the artist has been using her creative practice to research and share issues involving the history of the Montana landscape, Crow mythology, the importance of family, and the Indigenous roots of feminism. It is through her work that she aims to reveal lesser-known aspects of Crow heritage to the masses — and the distinct ways they’ve been erased from mainstream culture.
Currently, the artist has a mid-career survey up at the Newark Museum, which showcases the many ways in which she has explored the intersections of Native American ideologies and colonialist structures. Highlighting over 40 works produced from 2006 through 2019, A Scratch On the Earth displays a range of pieces including photography, textiles, film, and sound installations. The exhibit also includes the debut of a new immersive video, which blur the boundaries of culture, race, and gender in America. For example, in Apsáalooke Feminist, Red Star photographed herself and her daughter wearing traditional elk tooth garb as a means to represent her Crow heritage and the matrilineality of her tribe, while in While Squaw the artist reimagined and poked fun at the covers of romance novels. Humor and cleverness are hallmarks of her multidimensional work, which in totality exist as a deeply personal investigation of herself, and that of her lineage.
In honor of her exhibition (open until June 16), i-D spoke with the artist about the evolution of her art practice and what she hopes people will take away from seeing her work.
How did you get into making art that explores your identity as an indigenous person?
As a little kid, I had a hard time learning so my mom took me to see a doctor and we found out that I have dyslexia. Later, when I was in college at Montana State University in Bozeman, I took a sculpture class and realized that it’s really important for me to articulate ideas through three-dimensional thinking. That was a pivotal moment in my art practice and I started researching my own tribe — the Crow tribe. And that's when I learned about this important chief named Sits in The Middle of the Land, which solidified my interest in working with my cultural identity and background.
Through that research, I realized that Bozeman was actually Crow country, which is about three to four hours away from the current reservation. I felt a sense of pride knowing this and wanted to share it with the Bozeman community and the school. So, I set up tipis around campus, but some of the ones I set up were vandalized and knocked down so I set up several on the 50 yard line of the football field.
Did you initially intend for that work to be political?
At the time, there was a visiting artist who was teaching sculpture and he said to me, this work is very political, which threw me off. It took me several years to realize that I was articulating other parts of American history, the US government doesn't talk about how they’ve embodied a conqueror’s perspective. When we tell the stories of people of color, most people are shocked because they haven't heard this information before. We all are living in a colonial society without even really thinking about it. The people knocking the tipis down on campus were probably just like drunk students. But who knows?
When did you start using photography in your practice?
I was dead set on being a sculptor, without even realizing that photography had played a major part in my art making practice since the get go. When I created the initial tipi installation, I had seen an image of the chief, Sits in The Middle of the Land. He's an incredibly strong looking person and from that image I started reading about him. And I decided, I'm going to make the sculpture or installation, even though the idea initially stemmed from a photograph.
It wasn’t until I got to graduate school at UCLA for sculpture, where I was encouraged to work in different mediums, that I really became interested in photography. While I was there, I became very intrigued with all the photo majors and the way that they worked. Some people wore white gloves and vacuumed their studios and other people ate Cheetos and cut up photos and put their prints all over them. I just really loved the way that they were working with these images. And I also loved the fact that I could tell stories with photos. So, between 2004 and 2006 is when I really started to dive into using the camera as a tool for my art making.
How has your art practice helped you learn more about your community?
Now that I'm really looking at my practice more, it's sort of been an awakening for myself. I hope I can share what I've learned through my research with my community and they can learn something as well as the broader society. So, really when I sit down and think about it, I'm piecing together different fragments of our historical timeline. And even though I grew up in the community and on the reservation, this is how I’m learning more about my heritage. I’m patching pieces back together and it's just another way of archiving the culture and the history of my people, which are not widely known.
What are some other things you've learned about the Crow tribe through this practice that you didn't know before?
I learn new things with every project I do, which is why I'm addicted to it. Sometimes, I’ll go into projects with a preconceived notion and then I'll dig deeper and I will get shafted, so hard. This process has made me realize that I have to be very open-minded to everything. For example, sometimes I'll hear conflicting stories about a particular person or image. I realized that I have take into account that maybe those conflicting stories have some truth in each of them.
How do you see your work as a means to explore the indigenous roots of feminism?
I’m currently based in Portland, Oregon, and I've been introduced to all sorts of progressive things just by living here. There's a lot of talk about feminism and I was thinking about how that relates to me as an Indigenous woman and the ways feminism is really rooted in colonialism. Crow is a matrilineal society, which is not what colonial society is based on. So in that regard, we're using colonial terms to describe this very Indigenous way of thinking. Not all Indigenous nations are matrilineal, but there's a fair majority of them.
I really liked the idea that everything is traced through your mother's side. And since my mother is white, I reference my father's mother and my grandmother’s lineage. In Crow culture, the caretaking is all passed down through the female side. And it’s really wonderful to actually have an example of that where that doesn't exist in colonial society. It’s the ultimate expression of feminism when you think about it.
The other thing that I think is really amazing is that Crows have always been very supportive of people who identify outside of traditional gender norms. Saying transgender is a very colonial way of thinking. Now, we’re seeing acceptance spreading and that’s a very Indigenous way of thinking.
What do you hope people take away from seeing this bodies of work?
Really what I'm hoping is that people will actually start asking questions. I hope that my work will make them want to start researching and questioning things. And the other thing that I really would love is that people will humanize Native people. For so long Indigenous communities have been dehumanized and made to seem like they’re not people so that they could be eradicated and people could just take their land. Hopefully, when people see my work or they read some of the notes I put on the historical photographs, they are able to relate to the individual and the portrait through these approachable stories.