Call and Response: A Conversation with Jeffrey Gibson

"I want to help establish space for Indigenous creativity," says Gibson. "I have to find ways of seeing our histories as being living, strong, capable."


Jeffrey Gibson is a New York-based artist specializing in painting. He is an enrolled member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and is half Cherokee. His multimedia practice brings together global cultural influences from his time living in Korea, England, Germany, and the United States alongside his interest in music and language, intermingling elements of Native American arts and material culture with modernist traditions of abstraction and minimalism.

His work has most recently been featured in the 2019 Whitney Biennial and the solo exhibition “The Anthropophagic Effect” at the New Museum in New York. The exhibition “Jeffrey Gibson: This is the Day,organized by Tracy J. Adler of the Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York is on view at the Blanton Museum of Art from through Sep. 29.  

I caught up with Jeffrey recently while he was in Austin.

Kaila Schedeen: When I think of your work, I often think of the word ‘texture.’ In a lot of your paintings, there’s this hint at other dimensions, and there’s this incredible depth there that doesn’t match the idea of 2-D work in the way that we traditionally think of it. Obviously in your sculptures there’s a lot of texture with materials that are often rubbing against each other, the imagined sound they might produce, and potential movement even when they’re sitting still. So there’s always this hint at another concurrent sensory realm. I’m wondering how you would describe that in your work, if that’s something that you’re thinking about?

Jeffery Gibson: Yeah I think it’s an appropriate word, even conceptually and metaphorically. When I’m actually making something or conceiving of a new artwork, I really try to remove structured ways of thinking about it. It’s really guided by what triggers the next thing. Inherently I’m fascinated by the way, when we allow ourselves, we can follow an unscripted path. You actually stumble across more things and you’re triggered to look in one direction because of something you’re responding to. I’m incredibly process-oriented. So for instance with the garments, sometimes we’ll produce a section of it and it will sit there for months until it triggers something else. Sometimes it’s that it’s starting to look too “traditional,” so then I want to give it a jolt of color, or shiny reflective fabric, or holographic fabric. Maybe those are representative of time…and this object hasn’t yet incorporated a sense of future. Then what would indigenous future look like? That’s a struggle because there’s not really a trajectory to build upon when you think about indigenous futures. So that’s been a point of interest for me. I guess in terms of texture, for me the future isn’t weighed down by material. So that’s a challenge. There’s the kind of more ephemeral qualities of movement, and sound, and breath, and aural charge.

The idea even of this exhibition that’s here at the Blanton, a lot of it comes from (Director of the Wellin Museum at Hamilton College) Tracy Adler, the curator who really challenged me to give these thoughts form. Sometimes the works kind of reference or quote historical formats that are not of my tribe, that are kind of imagined narratives. Sometimes they’re fictional narratives. Sometimes they’re fictional memory. But I’m always trying to navigate not appropriating and not offending — being very clear about subject versus intention and reference. So that’s all very textural, in its way.

View of "Jeffrey Gibson: This Is the Day"at the Blanton Museum of Art
View of “Jeffrey Gibson: This Is the Day”at the Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, July 14, 2019–September 29, 2019

KS: You’ve hit on a lot of different things I wanted to talk about. I was thinking about this idea of stereotype, and how people think about Native American art as one sort of unified body, rather than as a number of different historical, contemporary, and future practices coming together in the same way that American art broadly operates. Within that, there’s always this idea of the “traditional” versus the “contemporary,” which you’ve also mentioned, and how people often see those as opposites, where traditional is stagnant in the past, and contemporary as moving forward. How do you see those two things as talking to one another?

JG: It’s somewhat unfortunate, but I think a lot of what we think of as traditional now actually is representative of tremendous change. Unfortunately what brought upon this idea of stasis and the decision to try not to change so rapidly is really intrusion and trauma, and a real cultural fear of feeling entitled to authoring change. How did we survive through those periods? We held tight and still and strong, and tried to stabilize a space for our communities. I think the idea of authoring, or altering, or progressing tradition to support us as who we were in those times has been a very scary thing for people to do. Materials change, what people wear changes, new songs can be authored and generated.

I began to actually think about things like Ghost Dance and things like Powwow as modern inventions, because they really are dramatic, manufactured cultural events in the face of dramatically shifting circumstances. So to me when I look at what is Indigenous modernity, that is it. And it’s been happening for a long time. In a weird way it sort of empowered me to feel like there is a trajectory that I’m a part of. These were people that were looking for new ways to support ourselves, and that’s what I’m looking for as an artist. I want to help establish space for Indigenous creativity whether it is in the art world, or the design world, or the music, or whatever it is. That’s kind of how I have negotiated for myself.

Oftentimes I say to people, even though I might reference a jingle dress, it’s actually not the jingle dress dance that I’m interested in. I’m interested in the fact that something new was invented to support where we were at that point. I’m also interested in the fact that there has been cultural production that has been unmapped and undocumented throughout the past centuries, and I think it’s really important that people today realize that. It’s not just that we’ve survived; there are moments in which we have thrived, we’ve found happiness, we’ve found joy, we’ve found celebration. We’ve always carved out space for ourselves. And I think growing up feeling as though my cultural inheritance was one of only traumatic despair is problematic for my own survival. So I just had to find ways of seeing our histories as being living and strong and capable.

KS: That reminds me of your flag piece at the entrance of the Whitney Biennial, and how utterly hopeful and uplifting the words are within it. Empowering words are actually important to people’s lives, and to yourself as an artist of color living in an art world that is still so much centered around ideas that support whiteness. To be able to use your art and creative expression as self-care for yourself and others is often unappreciated in art criticism, and a lot of the responses to the Whitney Biennial have left out the importance of that as not only a personal act, but as a political act in a time when it’s dangerous to be anyone but a white male.

JG: Yeah I realized when it came to that, I was just like, you know what, I’m not even talking to those critics. This is not for them. I am not talking to them, I don’t expect them to understand this. This is my opportunity to have a very visual, public space, and I chose to speak to other people. I do think the exhibition is great. But it’s kind of a survival strategy for me to not pay attention to the art world very much. Because the art world thrives on the moment, and in the best case scenario, any cultural thing hopefully lives beyond its immediate moment. I’ve been asked to comment on things, to speak on things, but I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older that sometimes I just have to let the work do that. Sometimes it’s not about me stepping in and addressing things right now.

View of "Jeffrey Gibson: This Is the Day"at the Blanton Museum of Art
View of “Jeffrey Gibson: This Is the Day”at the Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, July 14, 2019–September 29, 2019

KS: Well that makes me think about this idea of the life of an object and how it lives beyond its moment of creation, and how it exists outside of specific moments. I know you often reference your garments as sculptures- I’m curious why you do that and how you’re thinking about them as they’re installed versus how they live when they’re being danced, or worn, or enacted in some sort of way?

JG: Well initially I think I talked about them as sculptural, maybe as a way of giving myself freedom to not think about them having to be wearable. It’s about shifting the parameters in my head with different naming strategies. And so to call it sculpture opens it up to so many more things. But also, I wanted to think of them as having an in-the-round quality.

It was interesting, actually, when I was first making them Tracy and her team from would come visit the studio and we’d look at them, and there was many failed versions before they took the form they’re taking now. She would say, “What’s guiding you to make these decisions?” There’s an impracticality to wearing them that I realized has to be there. I had to connect that… why was I wanting to wear a garment that weighs one hundred thirty pounds? Why did I want to try and perform, and exhaust myself, and let other people see me getting exhausted trying to move in this garment? I realized that it’s metaphorical to having to carry the weight of being a person of color, being a male person of color in this world. I had to connect the feeling of that struggle to a sign of achievement as opposed to defeat. Because if you’re feeling the push back and you’re still moving, it means you’re actually moving forward.

KS: Can you talk a little more about what it’s like to actually wear one and move in it?

JG: Well they’re all different when you wear them. For me when I put them on, because they’re mine, I feel totally entitled to them. But when other people put them on I always kind of have to talk them into feeling a sense of comfort and ownership over them, and also to let them know that it’s important to me that they’re wearing them. We didn’t just choose a random stranger off the street, we chose you, we want you to wear them. It’s also about them feeling their own body in it, and I don’t know what that’s like. Over time, hopefully within 20-30 minutes, people begin playing a bit more with the garments, and then I feel like we start finding out what their body does in this garment. And that’s where I hope to catch the photograph and capture something that’s unique to them.

Jeffrey Gibson Portrait
Jeffrey Gibson Portrait image by and courtesy of Jessica Goehring

KS: Do you think of a tradition of dance in relation to your works?  

JG: I do think about dance, but in the same way I think about fashion. I don’t want to rush to dance so I’ve kind of been holding onto choreography. I’m interested in is choreographing authentic movements with our bodies to help us exist. With any number of traumas you carry your body differently: racism, homophobia, physical trauma, violence, all of these things. There’s a different kind of authentic language of people who feel completely safe and entitled. They use their voice differently, they stand differently, they walk differently, they choose a different spot in the room. Anybody can go and mimic that, but it will feel incredibly uncomfortable for some people to stand front and center, speak loudly, straight back, shoulders back, stand as tall as you can, and feel entitled to a 360-degree space. That’s a very different way of standing. So when I started talking about movement, I started trying to practice authentic movement for myself. I would work with my students at Bard College to do this in our class. And this other idea, which is actually based in a Bruce Nauman video, of trying never to repeat a movement, and also not to move until you feel compelled. To sit in a space, and try to compel yourself to move, where you don’t do anything until you actually feel like you have to. So right now I am interested in working with people to choreograph from people’s movements that they’re already doing in their daily lives, as opposed to from the history of dance.

KS: I want to move to some of the punching bags. I find them really interesting in that they kind of put together these ideas of joy and love, but they also make clear reference to combativeness, or even to violence because of their function. How do you see those things- what might be opposing forces, or coexisting forces- within your work? 

JG: The very first one — which is actually one of my favorite ones — took about a year and a half to make. It was really inspired by a number of things. There’s a collection I saw in the UK of artwork and objects made by institutionalized people living in solitary confinement. There’s a history of people making figurative works as companions when someone feels that they have no one. So these people would tear up their bedsheets, their bath towels, their curtains, and make these figures. I think Louise Bourgeois was also aware of these, and her figures kind of have that similar quality. I had also made life-size dolls when I was in graduate school in the 90s.

I remember with the first punching bag feeling like I wanted to show that clear struggle that I was having with myself. That came through me working with a physical trainer, and her talking to me about trying to use boxing as a catharsis for my own self-negation and inability to place anger. What was coming up at the time had everything to do with racism, classism, homophobia, feelings of invisibility, feelings of denial, feelings of inadequacy…and wanting to put that responsibility on somebody outside of myself. But there’s no one singular person. You choose where you’re going to contain these ideas and it becomes a metaphor, and you beat that, and hopefully it’s cathartic on some level. For me it was.

Jeffrey Gibson. LOVE IS THE DRUG,
Jeffrey Gibson. LOVE IS THE DRUG, 2017. Glass beads, tin jingles, metal charms, and artificial sinew on cotton and acrylic felt, mounted on repurposed vinyl punching bag with steel chain, 55 x 13 x 13 in. (139.7 x 33.0 cm). Courtesy of the artist; Roberts Projects, Los Angeles; Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York; and Kavi Gupta, Chicago. © Jeffrey Gibson. Photograph by Pete Mauney.

When I first showed the punching bag in New York, people were just thrilled with it. They really connected to the representation of a complex relationship — whether it’s with you and another person, or you and yourself, or you and something that’s totally intangible, people understood that we’ve all been on either side of that that combative relationship. I’ve just been playing with that back and forth. And it shifts, right? I’m a much more confident person now than I was then, and I always hope I’m always putting myself in some situations where I’m humbled and have to kind of reevaluate who I am in relationships. That’s what I tried to address in the bags. It has not yet ceased to be one of the best formats to talk about a relationship between one and the other. We don’t make nearly as many, we make maybe four or five a year now. They’ve also become a lot more elaborate. But they have lost that personal urgency of survival. Now they are sort of philosophical, or there’s one in the studio right now that uses a Gilles Deleuze quote that’s like, “If you’re trapped in the mind of the other, you’re fucked.”

Both Laughing.

JG: I fell in love with French philosophy in the early 90s, and it spoke to me in a way that I thought was so culturally relevant to Indigenous cultures here. How do we connect French philosophers and issues in Indigenous cultures in the U.S.? It’s through my practice that it makes sense. It had to be in beadwork. It had to be on a punching bag. And it had to happen now. If I had made that piece in 1992… who knows? But it’s this trajectory that I think makes that piece make sense now.

I think that generationally, for certain kinds of trauma, there has to be some kind of release that we don’t put on our bodies. It’s like some form of externalizing it. And I think the invisibility factor of indigenous people in popular culture…it doesn’t allow us to project onto anything that represents ourselves in a way that we can have an external release that we feel is shared out in the world. So we continue to feel like it’s solely on our shoulders.

View of "Jeffrey Gibson: This Is the Day"at the Blanton Museum of Art
View of “Jeffrey Gibson: This Is the Day”at the Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, July 14, 2019–September 29, 2019

KS: I’m thinking of your references to the Ghost Dance and to powwow, and to these community gatherings, and how it seems like what a lot of your work does is to recreate that sort of gathering space around an object or idea. That seems to maybe be a subversive act in itself in how it goes around institutional barriers that a lot of people feel within museum spaces. How do you think about gathering and community in relation to your work?

JG: I’ve thought of a lot of my work as being the call part of call and response. There’s sort of these calls to people — I don’t know who they are, but letting them know I’m here and that they should respond. I’m throwing a flare up in whatever way I can to let you know I’m here and you need to respond. And I will call back, or respond back. But I’m always impressed when people show up.

It’s interesting, there was an Indigenous woman who came to a panel that I was on recently, and we had a garment hanging. She asked me if I consider my garments ceremonial. My immediate response was no, I don’t. Nothing I make is ceremonial. There’s no ceremony for them to be used in. When she saw them she said, “I thought that this supports me. This represents who I am and I am a ceremonial person, raised in ceremony, who is excited and wants to take part.” That’s what I hope happens, but it requires a community to acknowledge it. It’s not my recognition or acknowledgment of it. It’s their recognition that it means something to them as a community, and if they enact it, I will happily give it. And it’s available to Indigenous communities in ways that it’s not available to non-Indigenous communities. But until it’s asked for, it’s not my place to impose it. That’s why it’s more of a call.

Kaila Schedeen
Kaila Schedeen
Kaila Schedeen is an art historian, curator, writer, collaborator, and creative thinker. She is currently a PhD Candidate in Art History at the University of Texas at Austin.

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