Editor's Note: Gregg Deal is the Native Arts Artist-in-Residence. He hosts public hours 11 am–2 pm January 13-17 and will perform at Untitled Final Friday on January 29. Below is a blog he wrote about his recent performance piece at the DAM, Ethnographic Zoo.
Ethnographic Zoo is a performance piece conceived to deconstruct the commodification and consumption of the Indigenous image. Much of my performance art deals in stereotype, appropriation, and the troubling amount of authority both exert over Indigenous identity, shaping the ways in which people understand and interact with both images and Native people. As a man who has been Indigenous his whole life, and with some of the experiences I’ve had, I know how the American public will react to these tropes and I very purposefully exploit that. I create work that pokes at the fantasies existing in American Culture, an effort that often times acts as a mirror, reflecting back to those who see it, and making the knee jerk reactions apparent.
Mundane Pomp & Circumstance
On a cold Saturday, I sat out in the front quad near the Frederic C. Hamilton Building of the Denver Art Museum. Enclosed by stanchions and seated on a chair, I did mundane things like listening to music, watching a movie, or reading a book. The pomp and circumstance surrounding my activities was in no small part facilitated by what I was wearing: a headdress, ribbon shirt, Indigenous breast plate and necklaces, leggings, and breach cloth gird about my loins. And while all in one way or another signify my identity as an Indigenous person, in this case, nearly all elements were made in China, or made from a kit with materials made in China. The headdress, made of dyed turkey feathers and pre-produced bead strips, is the center point only because it represents the quintessential feature of Indigenous masculinity, at least so far as Western culture is concerned. The production and purchase of these items amplifies the irony of people’s excitement and fascination with what they see because what they perceive as bona fide is as far from it as, well, China. That fiction is taken for fact underscores the limitations of western culture’s ability to relate authentically to Indigenous people, and be it this piece, Ethnographic Zoo, or my first performance piece, The Last American Indian On Earth, Americans have risen to the occasion of their (mis)understanding.
Fetishized, Exoticized, Studied & Gawked At
The concept of the Ethnographic Zoo (or Human Zoo) is rooted in early museums. These cabinets of curiosities, oddities that exist in the world, are foreign and mysterious to the western eye. It was during this time that tribal people from Africa, the Philippines, the Americas, and other exotic places were put on display, museumized, studied, and gawked at. The level of sub-humanity implied with such curation perpetuates the “othering” of these brown people, rendering them something that cannot exist in western “civilized” society. Something that is different, scary, and savage. Something that still exists, even if only embedded into the fabric of dominant culture.
What does this have to do with my performance piece, Ethnographic Zoo? Everything. While there has been obvious progression in our understanding of human beings, Indigenous people have an odd, but secure place in western culture. In hundreds of years there has been no evolution in the depiction of Indigenous people, thus canonizing our image and constraining our potential or room for growth in a modern society. Our Indianness is based on the American anachronism of what we should be, not what we are. It’s about feathers, buckskin, long hair and red tinted brown skin, not our favorite movies, music or food. Within this narrative, we live in tipis, not houses in the suburbs. As a result, we are still fetishized, exoticized, studied, and gawked at. The only difference is that we are no longer on display in our museums, but instead on your television, on the silver screen, in literature and advertising. By extension, our wares are appropriated with ‘honor’, yet without any real context to the history or contemporary lives of Indigenous people living within American culture.
So what happens if I take this image and plop it in the middle of Denver? What happens if I reappropriate an image that has been appropriated a million times, and subject myself to the concept of the “Human Zoo," where you can see me in my natural habitat, and ultimately contemplating my own existence as a living embodiment of the stereotype Americans know and love? It’s sad, ironic, smart, academic, humorous, and challenges the Indigenous image and its expression in Western culture. We are consumed. So how about I allow you to consume me under my own steam, challenging your institutions, your films, your canonized view of what you think I should be as an Indigenous person, all the while creating a joke that is on you because everything you’re looking at is fake? I am an Indigenous man, to be sure, but the image you see—the outfit, the air of legitimacy carried by that image, both in person or in a photo—is fabricated. And you must understand that it is fabricated through hundreds of years of selling the American Indian through romantic notions projected through prisms of colonialism, romantic nationalism, and propagandistic patriotism, justifying land grabs, dehumanization, forced assimilation, and served with a side of imposed racial, cultural, and social inferiority.
Or maybe I’m just an Indian playing a trick on you.
Image provided by Gregg Deal.
The Native Arts Artist-in-Residence program is generously supported by The Virginia W. Hill Foundation, Colorado Creative Industries, and National Endowment for the Arts.