Start with “Um-basax-bilua, ‘Where They Make the Noise’ 1904-2016” (2019). It’s one of the most compelling works in the mid-career survey “Wendy Red Star: A Scratch on the Earth,” at the San Antonio Museum of Art through May 9.
Red Star is a member of the Apsáalooke (Crow) Nation and grew up on its reservation in southern Montana. Her art is humorous, irreverent and uncompromising, sometimes surreal. It is deeply rooted in a celebration of Crow life.
“Um-basax-bilua” is a photographic timeline of more than a century of Crow Fair, an annual tribal festival that features daily parades. The small-scale cut-out images show Crow men, women and children parading by in tribal regalia — first in black-and-white photos and riding on horses; later in color and in pick-up trucks. The trail of photographs makes a roughly 130-foot-long procession of its own, wrapping around the gallery walls.
Like much of Red Star’s work, “Um-basax-bilua,” interrogates the very nature of photography itself as a means used to perpetuate stereotypes of Native Americans as stoic, silent, entirely “other” than white Americans.
The historic black-and-white photographs that begin Red Star’s timeline were not taken by tribal members but by white photographers, sourced by the artist from archives. In fact, Crow Fair isn’t an Indian-originated event but one initiated by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1904 at a time when displays of traditional culture coincided with public interest in tourism.
It isn’t until “Um-basax-bilua,” reaches the 1980s, that the agency of the photograph-taker has changed. Delightfully, we see joyful pictures taken by Red Star and her family.
Red Star annotates her timeline, writing notes in pencil on the wall, much like an editor’s corrections. She names various figures (including family members), points out details of Crow customs and traditional dress, and adds historical facts. Red Star’s notes vacillates in tone from informative (“1906 – Antiquities Act. Congressional Act declared that Indian bones and objects found on federal land were property of the U.S.”) to humorously irreverent (“FYI – Custer got his Ass kicked by the Lakota-Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho.”)
Other photo-based series in the exhibition, which was organized by the Newark Museum of Art, are likewise annotated. Both “1880 Crow Peace Delegation” and “Diplomats of the Crow Nation, 1873 Crow Delegation” use photographs from the National Anthropological Archives, portraits of Crow leaders responsible for present-day boundaries of the tribe’s land.
In red pencil, Red Star fills in their names and biographical information, identifying details of their dress, hair styles and accoutrements. Many have cartoon speech balloons with their names written in the Crow language. And Red Star outlines or colors in certain features. There’s no erasure to her corrections and re-writing of history; instead Red Star’s creativity radiantly bursts through in a liminal space between the past and the present.
Red Star’s “Four Seasons” series from 2006 stylishly subverts not only the romantic idealizations of American Indians and their relationship to nature, but also the very nature of museum display. The series arose from a visit to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles Country when she was in graduate school and she saw her culture depicted in dioramas.
In “Four Seasons” Red Star is dressed in traditional Crow regalia, and poses in highly artificial dioramas — one for each season — along with inflatable animals, plastic flowers, Styrofoam snowballs, Astroturf, everything in vivid technicolor hues.
Red Star’s blend of artificiality and authenticity is brilliant in its critique of cultural institutions.
“I never want to forget history or places, even if they’re bad,” she once told an interviewer. “I want to build off of what’s there.”
“Wendy Red Star: A Scratch on the Earth,” at the San Antonio Museum of Art through May 9. samuseum.org