The work of Jeffrey Gibson swirls with explosions of color, pattern, geometrics and collage.
The renowned Mississippi Band of Choctaw/Cherokee artist is showcasing his work in “Jeffrey Gibson: The Body Electric” at SITE Santa Fe through Sept. 11 in a comprehensive survey. The exhibition reveals paintings, sculpture, a film series, a live performance and a newly commissioned mural brightening the building’s front lobby and main galleries.
The work reflects Gibson’s identification as an outsider through a celebration of nonconformity incorporating his Native American identity, as well as his experiences in North Carolina, Korea, Germany and Chicago.
Expecting a largely Native influence, viewers often seem surprised by the inclusion of such varied backgrounds in his work.
His father was a civil engineer whose government career took him across the globe.
“We moved a lot,” Gibson said in a telephone interview in the Hudson River Valley north of New York. “When he would come back (from traveling), he’d bring me something art-related.”
Family members quilted and worked in beadwork, traditions surfacing regularly in the artist’s work.
The divisions in Gibson’s college “They Play Endlessly,” 2021, echo quilt squares.
“The phrase is something I used in a piece in 2013,” Gibson said. “I’ve grown up with an awareness of the traumatic history of Native people. But I grew up in a family with love, of music, of listening to pop music in a pickup truck.”
In Chicago, Gibson worked at the Field Museum, helping tribal delegations sort through the collections under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. It was there that he discovered the flourishing of Native patterns in the museum’s archives.
“I spent a lot of time in the collections,” he said. “I didn’t want to copy anything that was in that museum because those patterns belonged to those people.”
He also counts geometry, Op art, design, fashion and psychedelia as influences, as well as punk rock and house music.
“They come from a very playful place,” he said. “It’s playful, but as an Indian person I want to feel like I have the autonomy of creating my own patterns. When I’m in the studio, I try to operate and work in a state of play.”
The mixed-media collage “Pahl Lee,” 2021, evolved from Gibson’s reaction to the 19th century paintings of Native Americans by Elbridge Ayer Burbank.
“As I was working with them, they made me very sad, very angry,” he said. “We’re not learning anything about them. These people were oppressed. They had been displaced and they were told what to wear. I decided to use them almost as a mark.”
Gibson crowned a commercially produced purse hand-beaded by a Native person to the top of the piece.
“It’s not so much about Pahl Lee as it is about Native women,” he said. “The handbag is so sweet.”
He took a similar approach to Burbank’s portrait of Chief Black Coyote, adding beadwork, a vintage buckle and pin, as well as a belt to the collage.
A series of beaded birds stems from the “whimsies” (pins and novelties) tribes made as tourist souvenirs at Niagara Falls.
“I first saw them in the ’90s and they didn’t reflect a tribal aesthetic,” Gibson said.
The artist began his college education at the University of Maryland, but he lasted only one year.
“I was asked not to go back,” he said. “I didn’t go to class; I wasn’t a good student. I went traveling; I followed the Grateful Dead.”
He tried community college and was then accepted to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, then London’s Royal College of Art. His Mississippi-based tribe funded his overseas room, board and tuition.
People sometimes assume he had a traditional Native upbringing, but both of his grandfathers were Baptist ministers.
“My parents were both southern Baptists,” he said. “There were definitely some splits in the family. Some members still practiced sun dances. My parents never pushed either way onto me. It was kind of a weird mix. I’ve always tried to be really honest about what percentage of those experiences built me up. I’m interested in how these things intersect with my being Native.”