NYC, American Indian Art, and Teju Cole

Recent, intense work on projects has pushed out introspection in the past few weeks, but we were in Manhattan once again and took in many sights and experiences that warrant deeper thought and things to share. And just as once you look for something, there it is, I just finished Teju Cole's amazing reflection on life and New York City: Open City: A Novel. It won the 2012 PEN/Hemingway Award.

I was alerted to Teju Cole after someone read to me a comedic and pointed take on Ebola that he had written for The New Yorker, October 7, 2014. To me, the column shows an underlying interest in how we think, why we talk ourselves into things, and how absurd our rationalizations are. That was the kind of author I wanted to read. The book is not comedic, but it is beautifully written and with just those kinds of insights I had hoped for. The narrator walks all over Manhattan, meets people, has discussions and arguments, and tries to make sense of the world and his place in it. It touches on every subject, particularly every controversial and political subject you can imagine, but in a surprisingly gentle way.

Reading this on the heels of our own New York trip (we miraculously walked thirty miles in the few days we were there; that walking warranted the purchase of a new pair of shoes), it seemed time to do some connecting.

The National Museum of the American Indian is a branch of the Smithsonian. It is located in what used to be the Customs House in Battery Park. The building is high-ceilinged and majestic, as you might expect, but it houses American Indian art and objects from a variety of tribes, geographic areas, and cultures.

More startling, perhaps, is the realization, according to Cole's book, that the plaza, Bowling Green, was "used in the seventeenth century for the executions of paupers and slaves" (164), something you will not find in the Wikipedia entry.

A few highlights of the exhibition at the museum for me were from the contemporary collection, and they happened to be book and paper related. The weaving together of tradition and contemporary life, transforming that tradition, but keeping the essential emotional core, was what gave the work its weight. The technical skill and craft coupled with creativity gave the work its beauty.

Made of paper, graphite, and thread, this 2002 piece by Maria Hupfield (Anishinaabe, Wasauksing First Nation) is based on a traditional Anishinaabe woman's jingle dress. Each jingle features the name of an Indigenous writer. As the wall text notes it merges the oral, written and visual traditions. Usually, these cones are made of tin or other metal in order to jingle during a dance. Here, they are mute. But powerfully so.

Looking backwards, this Inka khipu (1425-1532) functioned as a ledger book. Its intricate knots, colors, and lengths stood as recording devices for inventories or accounts. One could think of it as a collection of series of numbers or as an early computer, the meaning lost to us, but we can still take pleasure in the tactile nature of the materials.

This takes us to ledger book drawings, roughly originating from 1860-1900 when the Plains Indians were forced off of their land into reservations. They used the paper traded, collected, or captured from the soldiers to draw and tell their stories, and they added new art materials to their practice. Some people might say that it made sense to use that paper then because it really was the paper of the time, but it has become part of the tradition to use the antique papers for contemporary work. The connection to one's ancestors is more prominent that way, additional meaning retained. The reminder to the past and to the history is embedded in the work.

Chris Pappan's (Osage/Kaw/Cheyenne River Lakota) artist statement says, "I intentionally distort portraits because people have a distorted idea of Native people." His style is his own, purposely not copying traditional ledger drawing styles in order to bring the work up to date and keep it fresh. Break from Tradition, 21st-Century Ledger Drawing No. 58, 2012.

Dwayne Wilcox (Oglala Lakota) includes contemporary objects, such as the cellphones in this image, according to the wall text, "to show how new technology is present in Native life and culture. The title is a play on the word for the number one, wánci (pronounced ONE-gee)." His flattened style is closer to traditional ledger book drawings, but his personal sense of humor transforms the work. 4G Better than One-G, 2012.

Seeing these reminded me of a book I own. At a 2014 memorial gathering for Yee Jan Bao, a colleague, his nephew told us to choose a book from Yee Jan's collection to take home with us. John Zurier and I both were intrigued with the same book, which he graciously let me have, "I think you want it more. You should have it." It was The Ledgerbook of Thomas Blue Eagle. My first impression was that it was an authentic copy of an Indian work, but on further examination, I realized it was a contemporary children's book. It has all of the characteristics of a historical document with its rounded corners, yellowed paper, and flat-style drawings, but it was published originally in 1994, reprinted in 2007. The artist does not, as far as I can tell, have an Indian background. I was disappointed. But after our trip I went back to it. It is based on true events, and the artist worked from historical documents and drawings from the original time period, and consulted with a Lakota advisor. Although this one is fictional, the history is real and tells an important story. It may be the only accessible example and teaching method we have. As I think about this, I'm not so disappointed.

Part of the premise of Teju Cole's book Open City is that perceptions of ourselves and of others can change as we get more or different information. We can enjoy the journey through New York City with him, but reflect and re-weigh our thoughts and feelings as we go. There is a value in being open.

More information on Plains Ledger Art here.


ol'red said…
This is a wonderful post and creates ideas and concepts worth pursuing. Thanks for all your posts.
frank B
Alisa said…
Frank B—Thanks for reading. I appreciate hearing about this post, in particular. Very best, Alisa
Margaret Cooter said…
The ledger book drawing tradition is fascinating, and I'll look out for Teju Cole. Hopefully someone will add the fact about Bowling Green to the Wikipedia entry! Terrific museum, wish I wasn't an ocean away and could visit immediately!
Alisa said…
Margaret—Glad it sparked your interest. Thanks so much for reading! Very best, Alisa