Free with the brush: Neal Ambrose-Smith talks contemporary Native American art

by Patty Templeton

Native American art is more than crafts and ceremonial objects. On Friday, April 21, “Exploration Beyond Tradition” begins at the Durango Arts Center, 802 East 2nd Ave., with hopes that art can reflect how Native Americans live in a contemporary world and make contemporary work to reflect that. Curated by artist and educator Michael Billie, the opening will be a representation of indigenous artists (mostly) from the Four Corners.

Billie has been a long time member of DAC, taught workshops there, won best in show at the annual juried exhibit, and works toward promoting local indigenous artists through grant work with The Native Project. “Native art is becoming more contemporary. A lot of the up-and-coming young ones are not doing the same cowboys and Indians stuff. They’re becoming more free with the brush,” Billie said.

The exhibit will have local and nationally-recognized artists like Jaune Quick-to-See-Smith, Roxanne Swentzell, and Baje Whitethorn. There will also be work from Neal Ambrose-Smith, whom DGO spoke to about his art, politics, and the upcoming show.

You have a very striking aesthetic. It almost looks like humorous, dystopic graffiti.I grew up with a lot of humor. The coyote stories from my tribe are humorous and I think it is pretty common in Native communities that laughter is the best medicine. If you let the weight of the world bring you down, you’ll poison yourself. Being angry is toxic. That’s always there with me.

I think a horrible way to deliver information is to beat someone over the head. I much more enjoy the conversation with another person. Whether we agree or disagree doesn’t matter to me.

That conversation starts with the canvas. You start with a blank canvas and there is no dialogue so you have to initiate the conversation. Eventually the canvas will start talking back to you as the work develops … When you make images, it is a process of communication regardless of whether it is my catharsis or my therapy or my passion.

Your work is infused with pop culture and sci-fi. What’s going on with that? First and foremost is the composition. The composition has to be dead on. Anything after that is gravy.

I do like the idea of science fiction and it can be ironic and the politics that come with it, especially the dystopian novelists from the ’50s with their futuristic science fiction. We are now in an Orwellian time. It has come to pass. Maybe it wasn’t going to happen in 1984 but it is certainly here today, in a lot of ways. Maybe it is scary and maybe it is tragic, but I also see it as pretty humorous. You sort of half to see it that way.

In the 1980s, the new “Star Trek” series – they were using iPads. Everyone thought that was amazing. They thought, “Wow, one day in the future way in the future, not in our life time,” but now you can’t do anything without some sort of touch screen. Everything is becoming reality.

Are politics always present in your work? Not a 100 percent of the time, but in the majority of my work there’s something in there that I slip in that’s culturally or political. I grew up in a house with a very strong feminist and political activist. It is sort of hard for me to not have feelers for that. I’m more aware of masculinity and sexism and cultural appropriation and a lot of things that other people don’t pay attention to. Those things are on my radar all of the time. I know that has to do with my upbringing. It comes out of my household culture.

The DAC exhibit is called “Exploration Beyond Tradition.” What does that mean to you?To me, I think tradition is a living thing just like culture. Tradition changes every generation. When I go back to the reservation, traditional ceremonial food for the elders is Wonderbread and baloney. They eat baloney sandwiches at ceremony. That’s tradition. It wasn’t for their grandparents or the grandparents before them, but that’s what’s traditional food now. I think tradition is a colonial construct. In a way, I would call my work traditional because as a Native person it’s mine. I made it. It must be. It can’t be anything else. It’s a reflection of myself and what’s going on around me.

What kind of work are you bringing to the exhibit? They’re giant prints. 64×39 (inches) and there are four of them. These four pieces are alluding to comic book covers. There’s kitschy stuff in there. There’s the Star Ship Enterprise. Three of them are like portraits. I got my mug in three. They’re a reflection of me in the comic book world. In fact, in one of them I replace the image of Captain Kirk and I become the first Native American Star Ship captain on the 1966 series. Which is kinda funny.

What does success mean to you?I think I’ve been successful. I don’t let any bad work out or try not to. I think that’s a good motto, put your best foot forward. Have I been successful with impact? Maybe. Have I had success with change? Perhaps. It’s hard to say. I don’t have a fan club or a metric for that. I’m not looking for that. I’m not looking for permission and I’m not looking for acceptance. I am happy to be able to do what I’m doing and that I’ve got this far. If I can keep doing what I’m doing, that’s all I can expect and want.

Why is a show like this important?I think art is always important … It feeds people. It makes people feel connected and creates dialogue. It’s shared information. Not all artists are political or activists. Some are … I love to see that shared experience that brings people together, especially in a time like this. We need to be influenced by each other and be happy with each other. Find solace and find common ground. I think art has always been there. It doesn’t matter who the artist is or whether they’re unknown or famous, there’s good work everywhere. There’s room for all artists. There’s room for all art.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Patty TempletonDGO Staff Writer


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