What’s the perfect medium to capture commonalities and differences in Native American art? If you answered “skateboard decks,” you’re ... rather eccentric ... but also correct.
An exhibition called “Pivot: Skateboard Deck Art” will be opening at Fort Lewis College’s Center for Southwest Studies on March 25.
The exhibition is the brainchild of Duane Koyawena and Landis Bahe, Hopi-Tewa and Navajo artists respectively. If Koyawena’s name rings a bell, it may be because he’s one of the creators of the Hopi R2 droid (the R2D2 unit decked out like pottery for “The Force Is With Our People”).
Bahe and Koyawena came up with the idea for the Pivot show over their dinner table/workbench. Koyawena had been painting skateboards for art shows for a while, and he and Bahe were both wanting to do something big, different, and impactful. What they settled on was a show featuring their art – and that of other indigenous artists they knew – with the common canvas between them being skateboard undersides.
The first show was held on July 4, 2017 at Tat-Fu Tattoo, Bahe’s tattoo shop in Flagstaff, Arizona. The two had a blast putting together the show, Koyawena said, and it generated a lot of buzz, especially because it involved a number of big name artists. As a result, the director of the Museum of Northern Arizona heard about their show, checked it out, and invited them to turn the one day event into a long-term exhibit at the museum.
“From that point on it really took off, and my vision for it was just, like, so big,” Koyawena said. “Being involved in a museum, having your own exhibit – that to me is an artist’s dream.”
When it was all said and done, the exhibit collected around 100 pieces of art from more than 30 artists, representing somewhere in the vicinity of 10 different tribes. While many of the artists such as Michelle Lowden (Acoma Pueblo) and Baje Whitethorn Sr. (Navajo) represent cultures of the Southwest, others come from elsewhere, such as Tlingit artist James Johnson, who hails originally from Juneau, Alaska. In addition to the skateboards themselves, the walls of the exhibition have been painted with symbols and patterns the curators find universal and meaningful.
The word “pivot” in the name of the exhibition has a number of thematic meanings – beyond being something you can do on a skateboard.
One meaning, Koyawena said, is recognizing the way that he and other indigenous artists must switch between their cultural traditions and modern society.
“Being Hopi, participating in culture, taking part in ceremonies, planting your cornfields, contributing to your culture in that way, ... we try to keep traditions going,” he said, “but then eventually comes the point where I live in the city.”
Pivoting is also represented in a visual way by the exhibition’s works, as they show artists adapting traditional art styles to work on a contemporary medium.
“We want to show the honesty of where we’re at as people here. We are basically evolving into whatever it is that we are going to evolve into,” said Bahe. “The generations after us are definitely going to be different. ... We don’t live the way our people did fifteen or twenty years ago. So we represent our lives in a contemporary way – the wall displays, the skateboard decks, but we’re using traditional images that our people have used for, well, I have no idea how long. But, I’ve heard it said the images have been used since the beginning of time.”
On a personal level, Koyawena said the exhibition honors a time in his life when he had to pivot and shift gears from a lifestyle in which he struggled with alcoholism and went to prison, to one in which he was able to point himself in a new direction.
“It goes to show that anybody who has a creative passion, who is doing music, or writing, or whatever ... they can pursue that art to the next level. I know it’s cliché, but if I can do it, I’m sure a lot of other people can do it too,” he said.
“Pivot: Skateboard Deck Art” will have an opening reception from 5 to 7 p.m., March 25 at the Center for Southwest Studies Museum. The exhibit will display throughout 2020. For more information, visit swcenter.fortlewis.edu.