Representing the U.S. and Critiquing It in a Psychedelic Rainbow

People in Venice might hear the jingle dress dancers before they see them. On April 18, some 26 intertribal Native American dancers and singers from Oklahoma and Colorado will make their way through the winding streets and canals of the Italian city. Wearing brightly colored shawls, beaded yokes and dresses decorated with the metal cones that give the dance its distinctive cshh cshh rattlingsound, they’ll make their way to the Giardini, one of the primary sites of the Venice Biennale. There, they’ll climb atop and surround a large red sculpture composed of pedestals of different heights and perform.

The jingle dress dance, which originated with the Ojibwe people of North America in the early 20th century, typically takes place at powwows. In Venice, it will inaugurate the exhibition in the United States Pavilion on April 20. Titled “the space in which to place me,” the show is a mini-survey of the rapturous art of the queer Choctaw and Cherokee artist Jeffrey Gibson. Flags, paintings, sculptures and a video envelop and fill the stately building with proliferating geometric patterns, intricate beadwork, evocative text, a psychedelic overdose of color and political references to Indigenous and broader American histories.

“How do I relate to the United States?” mused Gibson, 52, who in conversation slips effortlessly between earnestness and flashes of playful, dry wit. It was late December, and we were sitting in a room in his upstate New York studio whose nondescript furniture was dotted with evidence of ongoing work on Venice: a maquette here, paint samples there, a test flag folded loosely in a chair. The deadline for finishing nearly two dozen artworks was about a month away, but Gibson was calm — at least outwardly so — as he showed me images and the pieces in progress.

“I have a complicated relationship with the United States,” he said. His ancestors were among the Native Americans forcibly displaced by the federal government. Both his parents came from poverty and went to boarding schools, where Native children were frequently abused. As his studio manager zoomed in on a digital image of a painting, I could see a large block of text surrounded by angular, radiating lines. Gibson read the title: “The returned male student far too frequently goes back to the reservation and falls into the old custom of letting his hair grow long.”

The chilling line came from a 1902 letter written by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to a school superintendent in California about the need to assimilate Native students returning home from boarding schools. Once he found it, Gibson decided that all three busts he was working on for the Biennale should have prominent hair: a beaded mullet; long, flowing locks made from ribbon; and an elaborately-styled shawl-fringe “do.” The choice represents one of his artistic strengths: taking a point of pain and turning it into a kind of celebration, without losing its critical edge.

Installation view of Gibson’s works at the U.S. Pavilion, from left: “The Returned Male Student Far Too Frequently Goes Back to the Reservation and Falls Into the Old Custom of Letting His Hair Grow Long,” which references a letter by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs; “I’m a Natural Man”: “Liberty, When It Begins to Take Root, Is a Plant of Rapid Growth,” which cites a letter from George Washington to James Madison.Credit…Brian Barlow

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