The art of Keith BraveHeart, Oglala, is on the radar in South Dakota, where several museums are keeping a close eye on his artistic progress. His paintings not only honor the past, but combine the ironies of the modern world with traditional Lakota life.
In today’s art world, few artists portray Native life in a contemporary way—at home, on the plains, in the casino, or at the grocery store. BraveHeart’s work is a window into daily reservation life, even as the historic past hovers in the corner, through the window, or stands behind a subject in the painting.
Mary Bordeaux, curator at the Crazy Horse Memorial Museum, said, “Keith’s subject matter speaks volumes about what it means to be a contemporary Native person. It is difficult to be a contemporary Native artist without your paintings being the usual long hair, feathers, sunsets, and tipi by a river; that idea of what people think is Native art.”
BraveHeart’s vibrant and colorful portraits bring Lakota heroes to life while his more humorous subject matter incorporates Facebook “Likes” and Electronic Benefit Transfer, or EBT, cards with Lakota creation stories. His subjects wear baseball caps, t-shirts or traditional clothing. Girls in regalia walk by an ice cream truck, the White Buffalo Calf Woman shops for a feast for the Great Spirit.
A stereotypical 1950s blond white woman vacuums a buffalo hide, but look out the window for a jolt of history. There you’ll see the landscape dotted with dead, skinned buffalo, a reminder of the genocidal tactics of the Roosevelt era.
“When All You Have is the Warmth of a Woodstove, and Your Grandfather’s Last Name”
The title of one painting, “When All You Have is the Warmth of a Woodstove and Your Grandfather’s Last Name,” might evoke a sense of loss, but BraveHeart’s intentions were nothing of the sort. In fact, he explained it is simply an acknowledgment to the humble Lakota, who have never needed more than they had. “That was like my own family, I grew up in that kind of household.”
There are crosses in many of BraveHeart’s paintings and for a variety of reasons. “The cross in the ‘All I Have’ painting is a design traditionally used in Lakota work. Sometimes the crosses are a design, sometimes it is intuitive or to balance the composition, but in other paintings, it could represent the number four, which is also symbolic in Lakota. In some cases it could be about Christianity, it depends on the piece,” he said.
“Unci’s Last Dollar”
In “Unci’s Last Dollar,” BraveHeart said the cross represents “the dueling religion that our relatives live with today.” He had been working on this piece for years but it wasn’t until his own unci (grandmother) became ill that he completed it. “That piece is really personal. She was in the hospital and she died right before I finished that painting.
“I hauled that painting around for a long time. I think I modeled it after my own grandma. It’s my tribute to her. I put a little scarf on her to represent all uncis, like the real traditional ones I seen growing up, with the little shawl, the little moccasins. She would always enjoy going to Deadwood and gambling, and towards the end of her life, she didn’t have the ability to go out and have that kind of entertainment and enjoyment. I wondered, what would you do in your last moments of life, to enjoy this earth or this life? I figured it is not such a bad thing to go and have entertainment, but at the same time, that approaching journey was probably on her mind. It’s like, what would you do if you had your last dollar? If you know the end is on its way, what do you want to do? That’s why I put that Christian cross on there. My grandma respected the church, she would go and talk with the father but at the same time she was still real traditional. She went to ceremonies and everything like that; she spoke Lakota first.”
Keith went to see her in the hospital right before she died. He said, “When I went to see her she gave me that dollar. She really cared about all her grandkids. I cut it up and put it in that painting, so that was actually Unci’s last dollar.”
Others might see the painting as a commentary on gambling, but sometimes with BraveHeart’s paintings, it simply is what it is. “As the artist, I love that viewers take other things away from what they see. I understand that art should be for everybody,” he said.
“She Cleans Taniga”
Mary Maxon, curator at the Heritage Center at Red Cloud Indian School, and former curator at the Dahl Museum in Rapid City, said, “Sometimes his paintings are lighthearted, but they often have darker undertones. In “She Cleans Taniga” (tripe), a woman is standing against the bright pink Victoria’s Secret background and she is holding a knife. There is another one of the Wounded Knee Massacre with the image of Big Foot. His work is contemporary but connected with traditions. It’s a cultural continuum and I am glad he is celebrating that.”
BraveHeart enjoys watching people viewing his art in galleries. “I kind of started to use vibrant colors, and they feel happy they see the paint for what it is. But once they start looking at it, they see something they didn’t see at first and it can stop them in their tracks, and they may think more about it. They may have a serious moment, but it is not just about the seriousness, it’s also about the humor.”
The Dahl Museum of Rapid City held an emerging artist show for BraveHeart in 2008 and has purchased BraveHeart’s work for their permanent collection. This past fall, Maxon loaned a show to The Washington Pavilion in Sioux Falls. “The curator came out to choose the show and boy, she chose a lot of Keith BraveHeart; and I don’t believe that she had known who he was,” Maxon said.
So far, BraveHeart has only shown his work in galleries that feature Lakota art. “I focus more on voicing my perspective as a Lakota than trying to achieve market success. It’s sometimes hard to work for someone (gallery, commission) and not have the freedom to create what I feel has to be made,” BraveHeart said. “I would love for my work to be part of galleries, for more viewers to be able to see my work, but I just feel it is hard to find a place where I feel like my work belongs.”
BraveHeart names many artists who have influenced him. “Oscar Howe. The older Lakotas, they call themselves ‘The Dream Catchers:’ Roger Brower, Bobbie Penn, Vic Reynolds, Arthur Amiotte, Richard Red Owl, Robert Freeman,” he said. “When I went to Institute of American Indian Arts, I learned about Native art and it is very vast. There’s a lot of good stuff out there, so it’s hard to just single it down to a few. I also love Paul Guagin and Vincent Van Gogh, the fauvists.”
BraveHeart has a background in photography and his interest in filmmaking was seen in the documentary, “Horse Nation,” which he conceptualized and directed. “I love art,” BraveHeart said. “Before I am an artist, I am a person who appreciates and respects art no matter what the medium is or where the artist is from. I respect it all.”