As a graduate student at UCLA more than 10 years ago, artist Wendy Red Star was feeling homesick for her family and for the Crow reservation in Montana where she grew up. She found her way to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, where she wandered into a gallery exhibiting Native American objects. “They have these amazing dioramas,” she says, “but they’re set up as if native people don’t exist anymore.” Her response was the series Four Seasons (2006), a deadpan twist on conventional museum dioramas depicting Native Americans. Fall, one of the four photographs in the series, shows Red Star in a Crow garment posing in front of a romanticized nature scene. She sits on a floor scattered with fake orange leaves, next to a shiny plastic inflatable deer, puncturing the notion of authenticity with barbed humor. The photographs are part of Red Star’s brilliant, big-hearted body of work in various media, selections of which are on view at the Newark Museum through June 16 as part of her exhibition A Scratch on the Earth.
Humor, says Red Star, is an integral part of Crow culture; it also offers a way in, for viewers, to works of art that deal with such categorically unfunny topics as racism and genocide. In two more recent series, 1873 Crow Peace Delegation (2017) and 1880 Crow Peace Delegation (2014), Red Star reframes archival images – and subverts museum convention – by adding handwritten notations (in corrective red pen, no less) to digital reproductions of black-and-white photographs taken by portrait photographer Charles Milton Bell while members of the Crow Delegation were visiting Washington, D.C., to fight for their land in the late 1800s. Red Star’s notes, which provide names as well as information about lineage, accomplishments, and details about the meaning of items of clothing, both humanize and valorize her subjects. Some of her notes are explanatory. Others offer wry commentary: next to an arrow pointing to the formidable Bia Eéliaash, Red Star has written “6ft 4.” And below that: “I can kick your ass with these eyes.”
Red Star’s red pen, which outlines the individuals and articulates the patterning in their clothing, has the casual feel of a doodle and at the same time a sense of precision and intention. In several images, she has the sitters speak their own names in speech bubbles, asserting their identity. By inscribing all of this information in her own handwriting, she adds a layer of intimacy and takes her place in the Crow lineage. She also restores specificity to people whose photographs were often a blank slate on which Anglo-American viewers have projected their own ideas, transforming them from symbols to individuals.