The words “Native American ceramic vessel” most likely bring to mind images of earthy red clay painted with elaborate patterns in black and white, or perhaps incised. The images the words conjure, it could be said, are stereotypical. However, the ceramic vessels created by contemporary Native American artist Cannupa Hanska Luger are stereotypes of an entirely different order: for one, they are actually stereos. Specifically, they are sculpted boomboxes adorned with “Indian” accoutrements—feathers, bits of fur, dream catchers, and various other found objects—signifying specific “types” of Native Americans often misconceived by mainstream American culture.
Cannupa Hanska Luger’s solo exhibition, STEREOTYPE: Misconceptions of the Native American, opened at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts concurrently with the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts 92nd annual Santa Fe Indian Market, arguably the largest crowd-drawing event of the summer. Thousands flock to the Santa Fe Plaza every year to view the finest traditional indigenous wares. In contrast to—and complementary to—Indian Market, STEREOTYPE presented a challenge to viewers by pushing the question of what contemporary Native arts can do, or should do.
Cannupa Hanska Luger, STEREOTYPE: Misconceptions of the Native American, installation view, 2013; Courtesy the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts / Photo by Dianne Stromberg.
Luger, born in North Dakota on Standing Rock Reservation, addresses the issue head-on with iterations of an icon of counterculture: the boombox. Or, affectionately, the ghetto blaster. The seven ceramic boomboxes are each characterized by a specific stereotype or pop culture misappropriation. The identification of these types relies heavily on titles and involves lengthy wall-text that unfortunately bogs down the viewing experience with a lot of information. These text panels can be rather long-winded, but for the most part the sculptures stand on their own.
The more obvious stereotypes include The Indian Princess (a cute white pocahottie with pink feather), The Drunk (a tattered, older model toting a bottle), Big Chief (stoic and warrior-like), and The Plastic Shaman (bearing lucky charms and mystical detritus). Other references require further explication. The Curtis refers to photographer and ethnographer Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952) who often staged romanticized photographs of Native Americans by manipulating the scenes with historically inaccurate costumes or objects in order to capture images of the “noble savage.” The Barrymore references actress Drew Barrymore and the 2012 incident in which the celebrity posted a photograph of herself wearing a feathered war bonnet and a budweiser apron as her Facebook profile picture, an instance of insensitive appropriation of sacred regalia and an ignorant reference to The Drunk stereotype. The Ghost takes the form of an out-dated radio, rather than boombox, as well as the shape of a tombstone. Its carved skull facade refers to the perceived myth of Native American extinction.
The boombox as vessel for these unfair misconceptions and attitudes about Native American cultures serves dual functions. In its association with urban youth and hip hop in the 1980s, the boombox is a medium of liberation; it brings music to the streets and creates an independent space of expression. This is a positive aspect of the iconic device. However, inherent within detachment from broad mainstream norms is also detachment from societal responsibility. This detachment is precisely what an installation of stereotypes critiques: the casual and reckless consumption of over-generalized, exaggerated, and false images of Native American cultures by the metaphorical boombox of pop culture. These sculptures succeed in satirizing and dramatizing these counterfeits, and in doing so make them absurd. The objects are absurd like the injustice that results from detaching images from reality, from turning complex cultural identities into oversimplified signifiers and empty fads.
That the issues at hand are complex and far-reaching is not lost on the artist. As an expression of his own limitations as a critical voice, he created a boombox self portrait, The Luger. In the wall text he writes, “I, Cannupa Hanska Luger, am but one filter understanding culture. If I am going to point the finger, I must point it back at myself.”
Cannupa Hanska Luger, The Indian Princess, 2013, ceramic and mixed media, 19 x 12 x 6 in.; Courtesy the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts / Photo by Dianne Stromberg.
Luger’s awareness extends to the inherent difficulty in visualizing stereotypes in order to fight them: they must be re-created in the process. Rather than risk perpetuating the ideas these objects sought to criticize, the artist shattered and destroyed them in a public performance at the museum on December 6. The objects are now on view in shambles until the exhibition closes December 31. Faint, pencilled-in outlines on the gallery wall echo the shapes that once were.
Standing opposite the boombox sculptures there are four more ceramic pieces. In contrast to the faux-boomboxes, these pieces take the more conventional form of clay vessels, and each contains a functioning stereo. The pieces are titled Autumn, Winter, Spring and Summer, and each retains the color of the distinct earth of which it was made. These vessels are accessible and organic, elegant and imperfect. Their cavern-like openings invite the viewer to draw closer as the sounds resonating from within call out from some unknown reality, just out of sight.
(Image on top: Cannupa Hanska Luger, The Barrymore, 2013, ceramic and mixed media, 21 x 25 x 14 in.; Courtesy the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts / Photo by Dianne Stromberg.)