JTF (just the facts): A total of 12 photographic works, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space. (Installation shots below.)
The following works are included in the show:
- 1 set of 4 archival pigment prints, 2023, sized roughly 21×16, 21×27 inches, in an edition of 3
- 1 set of 2 archival pigment prints, 2023, each sized 15×40 inches, in an edition of 3
- 2 sets of 3 archival pigment prints, 2023, each sized 16×25 inches, in editions of 3
- 2 sets of 4 archival pigment prints, 2023, each sized 16×25 inches, in editions of 3
- 6 fabric and archival pigment prints mounted on gatorboard, 2023, each sized 44×44 inches, unique
A monograph of this body of work titled Bíilukaa was recently published by Radius Books (here). Hardcover, 9.5 x 12.5 inches, 224 pages, with 140 color reproductions. Includes conversations with Wendy Red Star and Wallace Red Star, Molly Malone, Chelsea Malone, Annika Johnson, and Adriana Greci Green. (Cover shot below.)
Comments/Context: Wendy Red Star’s new gallery show stopped me short, and actually forced me to rethink something I had taken for granted. In this case, it was my fundamental assumption that the placing of cultural artifacts in museums is an unquestionably positive thing. The arguments for museums are of course many and largely compelling – by preserving art and artifacts in museums, these treasures can be safely protected and cared for by trained conservators, studied by curators, scholars, and experts (both now and long into the future), and exhibited to (and therefore educate) a much wider audience than if they stayed in their original locations.
But what Red Star’s new works reminded me is that when cultural and ethnographic artifacts are removed from their place of origin, they are in danger of sitting in forgotten drawers and losing their context, and perhaps more importantly, the very people who made these art objects are now inherently separated from them, making it much more difficult for the histories, traditions, and functional uses that these artifacts often celebrate and represent to remain integrated into those original cultures. By placing such artifacts in museums, we as a broad human population may gain many things, and on balance the case for museums remains strong, but what we risk losing is the rich cultural continuity that can exist when such objects stay closer to their makers. Red Star’s works forcefully reminded me of this quietly overlooked down side (which is certainly exacerbated in cases of injustice, exploitation, and outright theft), as in many ways, they are a conscious and active effort to artistically correct it.
Red Star is a member of the Apsáalooke (Crow) nation in Montana, and the works in this show build upon her wide ranging research into Apsáalooke objects and artifacts, as well as historical photographs of Apsáalooke individuals, that reside in public and private collections. Leveraging her growing archive of imagery, she has constructed a series of paper collages filled with hand-written annotations that reunite images of museum-held artifacts with images of Apsáalooke peoples using or wearing the same or similar objects, essentially reconnecting the broken cultural links created by the dispersion of these objects across the country.
Each individual collaged panel (which has then been rephotographed) is like the piecing together of a cultural puzzle, with a single object type expanded into a richer historical story. Most of the collages feature hand cut color photographs of museum objects, many elaborately beaded or decorated, which are then surrounded by black and white images of Apsáalooke individuals, some of which Red Star has been able to identify, name, and date. Red Star’s annotations cover the current location of the objects (in museums like the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian, the Denver Art Museum, and a range of smaller institutions around the Midwest), the functional context of the object, its name in the Apsáalooke language and a translation into English of that word or phrase, and various other comments and personal observations.
Red Star takes us down the narrative pathways evoked by beaded leggings, moccasins, buckskin dresses, belts, buffalo hair coats and fans, floral vests, elk tooth decorations, wedding blankets, saddle bags and horse decorations, metal armbands and beaded cuffs, and other objects, each elaborated into a research project, an aesthetic study, and a deeply personal cultural story. Her collages feel intimately casual, like musings or scrapbooks, each page an effort to reclaim something lost and to bring it back to “Our Side” (the name the Apsáalooke use to refer to themselves.) Such information could of course have been arranged and displayed much more systematically, but Red Star’s choice to make these collages by hand says something about the intimate nature of the engagement between these objects and her own life story.
In the back half of the gallery, Red Star takes this same collage idea and reworks it in a more pattern-driven, geometric fashion. On large square panels covered with fabrics typical of Apsáalooke regalia (a motif she has used as a backdrop in previous projects), Red Star has arranged enlarged color photographs of intricate beadwork, from the stripes and panels found on moccasins to the figures of chiefs, women, fruits, and flowers found on other garments and ceremonial objects. In two moccasin motif works (one in green, the other in pink), the beaded shoes are repeated in different sizes, telescoping in and out and twisting like nested fractals. In other works, beaded faces and figures are arranged at cardinal points, mirrored into sets of four, often with smaller echoes repeating along the edges or in the corners; the resulting works feel crisply ordered and boldly graphic, almost like playing cards, but with imagery that celebrates Apsáalooke cultural traditions.
Many artists and photographers have gone down a path of archival research in an effort to uncover usable source material, but Red Star’s approach seems altogether more personal and urgent than most. She’s thinking smartly about context in relation to the contemporary indigenous experience, from rediscovering and recreating contexts that have been lost or marginalized to building new contexts and artistic relationships from resonant fragments. In this way, she is both activating history and reconnecting herself to her past, finding new versions of herself and her culture through a tenacious process of investigating and remixing.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The multi-image rephotographed collages range from $12000 to $18000, based on the number of panels included, while the fabric-based collages are $40000 each (and all already sold). Red Star’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.