A red baseball cap with the slogan “Make Amerika Red Again” sits on a shelf alongside other merchandise like T-shirts, totes, and lighters. This cap is adorned with beadwork and topped with a yellow feather. The setting appears to be a combination campaign headquarters, tech showroom, surveillance center, and stage set for something called the New Red Order, a self-proclaimed “public secret society” of artists and filmmakers seeking to expose the “open secret” of Western expansion. Interested in learning more or joining? Call 1-888-NEW RED1 for details.
We find ourselves at the Hessel Museum of Art at Bard College, specifically at an exhibition titled “Indian Theater: Native Performance, Art, and Self-Determination Since 1969.” Bard College recently established a Center for Indigenous Studies, and as part of its efforts, Indigenous scholar Candice Hopkins has organized a vibrant group show featuring around 30 Native American artists, ranging in age from 29 to 96. Notably, Jeffrey Gibson, who will represent the United States at the 2024 Venice Biennale, is among the featured artists.
The art world, and the real world at large, has been slow to acknowledge the existence of contemporary Native American art. Recognition has primarily come from within the Indigenous community itself. Hopkins takes inspiration from an initiative dating back to 1969, which coincided with the occupation of Alcatraz Island by Indigenous activists known as Indians of All Tribes. That same year, Native American fashion designer Lloyd Kiva New proposed the development of a new “American Indian Theatre” based on the idea that traditional Indigenous art incorporated theatrical elements that could be utilized to create new and distinct forms. This proposal, printed as a booklet, serves as the starting point for the exhibition.
One of the groups influenced by New’s ideas was Spiderwoman Theater, founded by three New York sisters of Indigenous descent. Their presentations, fueled by radical feminism, ethnic consciousness, and humor, are captured in a full-length video of their “Cabaret: An Evening of Disgusting Songs and Pukey Images” from the late 1970s. Similarly, James Luna, a California performance artist, embraced humor as a means to address difficult histories. His works, such as the beaded “MAGA” cap, challenge objectification of Native Americans and the idea that Indigenous art only exists in the past.
The exhibition features a range of performance videos, each with its own tone. Theo Jean Cuthand’s autobiographical pieces explore the journey from lesbian to transgender male identity with enthusiasm. Cannupa Hanska Luger’s aerial view of mirror-bearing demonstrators at Standing Rock turns a protest into a powerful procession. Asinnajaq presents a short video in which the artist rises from a pile of stones, symbolizing rebirth. Additionally, artists like KC Adams and Dana Claxton utilize costuming to explore themes of politics, identity, and ceremonial regalia.
Large sculptures, such as Natalie Ball’s “Deer Woman’s New Certificate-of-Indian-Blood-Skin,” impress with their dramatic presence. Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill’s “Counterblaste,” a life-size nude figure made from pantyhose, tobacco, debris, and wildflowers, exudes a haunting quality. Eric-Paul Riege, the youngest participant, presents fiber weavings inspired by Indigenous jewelry forms, which he uses as props in his performances.
The exhibition also incorporates sound, highlighting the vital role of music in the vision for a new American Indian Theater. Recordings of Native music are played on a turntable, echoing the folk and ethnic music craze of the early 1960s. Displayed under glass are recordings made by ethnomusicologist Ida Halpern, who discovered that Native music was outlawed and considered too sacred to be heard by non-Native listeners. Sonny Assu’s installation of unplayable copper records pays homage to this silenced music.
The New Red Order (N.R.O.) headquarters, known as “Conscientious Conscripture,” presents an audiovisual installation that satirically explores America’s complex relationship with Native culture. Founded by artists Jackson Polys, Adam Khalil, and Zack Khalil, N.R.O. seeks to go beyond surface-level acknowledgments and bring attention to Indigenous futures and the ongoing impacts of colonialism.
While it is hard to determine the extent of the project’s impact, art has the power to generate change, as seen during the AIDS crisis. Currently, Native American art is gaining recognition in the art world like never before. In addition to the upcoming Venice Biennale representation, there will be a major survey of contemporary Native work at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Furthermore, James Fuentes Gallery will host a show featuring four young Native artists.
As an exhibition that challenges conventional notions of Native American art and showcases the diversity of Indigenous creativity, “Indian Theater” marks a significant step forward in promoting and celebrating contemporary Native American voices.