Ledger artist Chris Pappan (Osage/Kaw/Cheyenne River Sioux) offered new work at IAIA’s Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in his “Account Past Due: Ledger Art & Beyond” exhibit. His statement coincides with similar feelings from other Native artists—It is time to express a positive aura about our own bodies, they all seem to be saying. That it is all quite healthy and normal, with no cause for shame.
Pappan spoke with me about the work featured in this show, and other recent work in general. He began with a central figure he discovered in his research: Princess White Deer, a Mohawk woman vaudeville performer in the early 1900’s.
Pappan on Princess White Deer: “Yes, Princess White Deer—she’s one of my favorite subjects! Esther Deer from Akwesasne (St.Regis Mohawk Indian Reservation) adopted a pan-Indian persona in order to become successful, and to preserve her own culture. But she also reversed deeply entrenched gender roles for her time period (early 1900’s). I see her challenging of the Euro-American imposition of those roles as an act of rebellion. I love the photos of her because she is animated and emotive, unlike the stoic portraits from only a few years earlier of Native peoples. In my opinion she was an exhibitionist, someone who loved attention, but also brought attention to where she’s from and her people’s culture. In some ways, Princess White Deer is still performing, reaching out from the spirit world.”
Pappan on “Transitions,” a work in progress: “Ledger art was a major revolution in Native American art. In the mid 1800’s it was the introduction of paper to plains nations. The winter counts were moved from hides onto the ledger paper. When our people were forced into prison camps, ledger books were distributed, and a visual record of the disappearing ways were being kept. They were also paid for their drawings, so this was the beginning of Native art as a commodity. Researching some of the ledgers in the collections of the Field Museum here in Chicago, I came across some images that I felt were transitioning from a photographic tradition to a more European sense of rendering the world around us. I also was thinking about the old stories of a time when animals and people talked with each other, and great mysteries manifested themselves in the form of animals and people. These timeless stories are parables and metaphors that still have relevance. I believe we need to transition our imposed way of thinking about ourselves in a shameful manner and be accepting of our existence as human beings. This piece incorporates those “transitional” ledger figures, as well as a modern interpretation of the Lakota Buffalo Calf Woman who is not shy about who she is when she manifests herself as a human.”
Pappan on “The Unrelenting Onslaught of Those Who are Lost (Listen to What She Has to Say)”:“Euro-Americans are misappropriating our culture because they feel that they own it, or us. Why else would fashion designers, sports teams, etc. continue to parade these idiotic facsimiles of cultural objects/identities in front of us after repeated public outcries denouncing such actions? It seems that every week there is another beer, fashion designer, musicians that are making their products or themselves ‘more Native or primitive’ in a desperate search for cultural identity. These people are lost. So instead of just trying to co-opt someone else’s identity, why not just try listening to people and their viewpoints of the world, and in that way you can learn something, possibly about yourself, and the world around you. Human nature being what it is though, some people just don’t have patience, and will just take, take, take. The presence of coyote in the piece is a reminder of that, of the unpredictability and the absurdity in life. The deer woman is the mythical figure who can teach them/us, but are the people ready to listen? The figures are nude to express our vulnerability, and our commonality as human beings.”
Pappan on “GTFO”: “GTFO in the modern texting vernacular is ‘Get The Fuck Out.’ A sentiment continually expressed toward Native peoples. The trailer is a metaphor of poverty but also one of freedom, freedoms that were taken away, and now confined to minute spaces (i.e. reservations).”