The stylized face of a futuristic woman looms from a traditional Cochiti clay canteen.
Internationally known artist and designer Virgil Ortiz grew up on “Star Wars,” incorporating its themes and imagery into his pottery and fashion.
Ortiz’s melding of pueblo history with pop culture is one of nearly 100 objects by more than 50 artists in “Into the Future: Culture Power in Native American Art,” opening at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture on Sunday, July 17.
When Native American artists reinterpret popular Western imagery through their own cultural focus, the collision becomes a springboard for often pointed commentary, curator Valerie Verzuh said.
Santa Clara Pueblo’s Jason Garcia uses comic books as a format for expression in his clay tile “Tewa Tales of Suspense.”
A muscled Po’Pay looms over the helmeted conquistadors as a mission church burns. A careful look at his “Corn Dance Girls” jar reveals a satellite TV antenna sprouting from the pueblo behind the figures. Diego Romero’s pottery incorporates his own cartoon figures in his take on “Indian Bingo.” Jonathan Loretto created Cochiti storyteller bobblehead figures in “Star Wars Figure with Ray Gun.”
The use of humor in tribal cultures as a reaction to otherwise serious problems also serves an important role. The widespread use of the Trickster tradition and pueblo clown societies can turn mainstream stories upside down.
Ortiz has been working on a script about the 1680 Pueblo Revolt for years, depositing its characters across clay, fabric and leather.
“It’s a traditional canteen used with all the traditional methods and materials we use at Cochiti,” he said in a phone interview from his Cochiti Pueblo home. “The translator is a major character in my movie script that illustrates the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. But it also happens in 2180, just so the young people who grew up on ‘Star Wars’ (can) relate to it.”
Ortiz has long drawn from pop culture to explore his heritage. He’s been developing his script for 15 years, and the story keeps growing.
“It just catches the kids’ attention, and I love that,” he said. “I really want to educate the world about it. I want them to know what our people went through. Really, it’s America’s first revolution.”
Arapaho bead artist Ken Williams turned SpongeBob into a self-portrait in his beaded bolo.
“It starts back to a pair of beaded moccasins I did in a class at IAIA (the Institute of American Indian Arts),” he said. “It was kind of a breakthrough into narrative work.”
The moccasins showed the iconic cartoon character and his pink sidekick Patrick (a starfish) dressed in what they imagine is “Indian” clothing purchased at a costume shop. The commentary on Native stereotypes took first place in the Indian Market beadwork category in about 2004-2005, Williams said.
The bolo version is more serious, he added.
“I liked SpongeBob,” he said. “He’s basically dressed up in traditional Plains clothing. He’s wearing a feathered war bonnet. He was everywhere, and I was attracted to his sly wit.”
Williams recently applied those skills to more serious, heavily researched historic characters. He beaded bags with the images of designer Lloyd Kiva New and the legendary jewelry artist Charles Loloma.
“I try to have my work tell some kind of story,” he said.