Wendy Red Star:
A Scratch on Earth

Wendy Red Star: <br> A Scratch on Earth

Wendy Red Star (b. 1981) is an artist informed by Indigenous heritage, working across photography, performance, mixed media, textile and video. An enrolled member of the Crow Tribe in Montana, she is dedicated to exploring contemporary life and culture on and around the reservation where she was raised. The Columbus Museum of Art exhibits her latest show, A Scratch on Earth.  The exhibition examines the roots of feminism and the ways Native peoples have been represented by outsiders throughout history and today. The show’s title translates the Apsáalooke word “Annúkaxua,” referring to a nineteenth century US government policy that prioritised keeping Crow people on their own reservation. According to the 1880 Peace Delegation in Washington, D.C., Apsáalooke could only stay in their homelands if they relinquished 1.6 million acres of land, or roughly 20% of their reservation, for the construction of a railroad. Following the delegation, the boundaries of the Indigenous land were consequently sold by the United States Congress.

The Peace conference witnessed the portraiture of Crow Chiefs and distinguished leaders, as captured by Charles Milton Bell, a studio photographer working for the Bureau of American Ethnology. These photographs, as with many historic images of Native American people, entered the public domain without any accompanying details about their subjects. A photograph of Chief Medicine Crow, for example, was used more than a century later by the Honest Tea beverage company (The Coca-Cola Company) to advertise their First Nation Organic Peppermint Herbal Tea. Today, ten of the original photographs have been scanned and digitally manipulated by Red Star, labelled with annotations that provide biographical details of the figures. Accomplishments, birthdates and names are brought to the fore, alongside details on family lineage and traditional dress. Red writing inscribes personal details once lost to colonial archives, emphatically declaring that these are the bodies of known and important men and women. As curator Deidre Hamlar says, “This is an awakening to the history and endurance of Indigenous people that should not be for a day or a month, but for a lifetime. We hope this exhibition is a step towards bridging the void.”

Elsewhere, the acclaimed Four Seasons (2006) series is revisited. Photographs satirise romantic ideals of American Indians as “one with nature.” In the works, the artist poses with inflatable animals and artificial materials, highlighting ingrained stereotypes of Native Americans in popular culture. In a 2019 interview with The Tang, Red Star describes her inspiration for the piece: the Native Galleries at the National History Museum. “I went through the dinosaur exhibit, saw all this extinction. [The dioramas] set people up to think of native people as extinct,” she says. Spring (2006) and Winter (2006) present as parodied dioramas – where, from afar, it looks as if a woman is knelt on the ground outdoors. On closer inspection, however, it is clear that the subject’s environment is fabricated and made of cheap disposable materials. Folds in a cellophane river appear similar to ripples on water, yet the deliberately cut-out edges of blue paper demonstrate the two-dimensionality of the plastic sheet. The use of toy crows, meanwhile is a tongue-in-cheek reference to her Crow heritage. Here, a disposable bird is symbolic of a disposable “vanished race.” The artist continues to foreground the prolific cultural commodification of Native Americans, outlined by Aesthetica on the artist’s previous exhibition at Milwaukee Art Museum.

In Apsáalooke Feminist (2016), Red Star photographs herself and her daughter wearing traditional elk tooth dresses. The two appear beside each other, in mimicry, like doubled figures sprawled across couches and blankets. Bright colours reinforce the potency of the images, alongside an undulating background pattern that resists a fixed viewing. This detail, the artist notes, “destabilises the normally static horizon line of a photograph’s pictorial space,” and instead creates a portrait that is changeable and fluid. The visually arresting palette responds to the solitary black and white photographs of colonial photographers such as Edward S. Curtis. In contrast, Red Star focuses on vibrancy and collaboration, noting “gestural details reinforce the narrative of traditions passed from one generation to the next.” The result enshrines female figures and recognises women as integral to current conversations on Native history and politics.

In an exhibition of over 40 works, spanning 15 years of her career, Columbus Museum draws attention to the inaccuracy of historical archives and the legacy of imperialist visions. By using identity-based art, Red Star reflects on Indigenous culture, unique to her own personal heritage. She reclaims an under-studied history, once reserved to be “in the margins”, positioning the ancestral, real and womanly at the centre of her work.

Wendy Red Star: A Scratch on Earth

columbusmuseum.org | Until 3 September

Image Credits:

1. Wendy Red Star, Winter—Four Seasons, 2006. Archival pigment print on sunset fiber rag, 23 x 26 in.(58.4 x 66 cm). The Newark Museum, Gift of Loren G. Lipson, M.D., 2016 2016.46.1.3 © Wendy Red Star
2. Wendy Red Star, SpringFour Seasons, 2006.Archival pigment print on sunset fiber rag,23 x 26 in. (58.4x 66 cm). The Newark Museum of Art, Gift of Loren G. Lipson, M.D., 2016 2016.46.1
3. Wendy Red Star, Portrait of Perits-Har-Sts (Old Crow) and with His Wife, Ish-Ip-Chi-Wak-Pa-I-Chis (Good or Pretty Medicine Pipe) – from the series Diplomats of the Crow Nation, 1873 Crow Delegation, 2017. Pigment print on archival photo-paper, 17 x 25 in. (43.2 x 63.5 cm). Collection of the artist © Wendy Red Star
4. Wendy Red Star, Group Portrait of Three Men, Mo-Mukh-Pi-Tche, Ella-Causs-Se (Thin Belly), and Pish-Ki-Ha-DiRi-Ky-Ish (One Who Leads The Old Dog), from the series Diplomats of the Crow Nation, 1873 Crow Peace Delegation, 2017. Pigment print on archival photo-paper, 17 x 25 in. (43.2 x 63.5 cm) Collection of the artist © Wendy Red Star

5. Wendy Red Star, Apsáalooke Feminist #3, 2016. From series: Apsáalooke Feminist Edition: #/4, 2 ArtistProofs. Archival pigment print on Museo Silver rag,35 x 42 in. (106.7 x 88.9 cm). The Newark Museum of Art, Purchase 2018 Wallace M. Scudder Bequest Fund, Emma Fantone Endowment Fund forContemporary American Art, and Louise Bamberger Bequest Fund 2018.26.3