Terran Kipp Last Gun Artist
In Terran Kipp Last Gun’s latest series of photographs, Unconquered Beings, two creatures meet under cover of darkness. The figures have human bodies, while their heads are blocky, geometric shapes: One is similar to a buffalo, while the other is an indented hexagon topped by four spikes. In the images, the creatures wield neon lights, which appear as indistinct currents of color, thanks to long exposures. The mood of the photographs is somewhere between sinister and playful — the bright lights and intricate costumes are beautiful, but the headdresses are slightly unsettling. They look digitally constructed, yet suspiciously solid, and the viewer wonders whether or not they’re real.
“I made the headdresses out of cardboard and painted them white,” Terran explained during an interview in the photography studio at the Institute for American Indian Arts, where he’s a senior. The figures, one male and one female, are portrayed by Terran and his girlfriend, who’s also an IAIA student and a frequent model in his work. “You can’t see at all when the headdresses are on your head,” he continued. “And so it was a lot of me running to my tripod and setting the camera’s timer and getting into the shot.”
The narrative behind Unconquered Beings draws on traditional stories from Terran’s tribe, the Piikani of Montana, also known as the Blackfeet. The figure with the hexagon for a face is meant to represent Napi, a trickster in Piikani culture, according to Terran. “In the series, Napi is meeting Nature for the first time,” he said. “They’re showing each other their medicines, which are represented by their lights.”
Napi himself is an ambiguous figure. Though he’s known for his tricks, Terran said that Napi’s stories also often end with a moral. “So in a way, he’s a teacher, too.” In the final photos of Unconquered
Beings, Napi is wearing Terran’s own chicken dance regalia, an important dance in Piikani culture. “He’s changed his appearance to appeal to Nature and to lure her in. Lately, I really like the idea of using staged photography as a performance.”
When Terran, who’s twenty-six years old, enrolled at IAIA in 2011, he came for a BFA in museum studies. It was only after spending time with other artists that he decided to add an AFA in studio art. He recently completed an internship at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, and hopes to forge a career that combines an artistic practice with curatorial work. After graduation this spring, he plans to stay in Santa Fe, though he said working as an artist will be difficult without the institutional support of IAIA. “Right now, I don’t even have my own laptop,” he said. “I hear a lot from IAIA alumni that once you’re done you don’t have any studio access, so you need to learn how to do it on your own.”
In his artwork, Terran engages with themes regularly confronted by contemporary indigenous people. One piece, a screen print called Measured Blood?, features a numeric table that was used by the federal government in the 20th century to determine a person’s Native blood quotient and eligibility for tribal membership. The piece came out of a debate currently taking place in the Piikani Nation. “We started to reform our constitution, which is a good thing, but when it came to the membership section, everything got crazy because people wanted to change the [Piikani] blood requirement to one-quarter,” Terran explained. “There are people who live in my community who can’t be legally enrolled members [of the tribe] because their blood is right below the requirement. These are people who are involved in ceremonies and in the culture. We’re hurting our own members because we’re still using this broken system.”
In his first forays into three-dimensional work, Terran considers the question of territory. A piece titled Piikani Landscape features a wood sculpture a few feet high placed on top of a map of Montana. Thin layers of glued-together plywood undulate in and out, and when viewed from above, they tower above the state map. The sculpture represents the traditional territory of the Piikani, which is much larger than the present-day reservation, cutting into Glacier National Park; Helena, the state capitol; and Alberta, Canada. Terran said that the loss of traditional territory is keenly felt by the Piikani, particularly sacred sites, like the Badger-Two Medicine region, which has been threatened by oil exploration.
Terran doesn’t describe his work as having a specific activist purpose; he sees it as contributing to the conversation. “I make work about the things I’m passionate about,” he said. “I want to bring awareness to topics that my community and other indigenous communities face. And when I show my work to others, I find that they often have similar concerns.” — Adele Oliveira THERE ARE PEOPLE WHO LIVE IN MY COMMUNITY WHO CAN’T BE LEGALLY ENROLLED MEMBERS [OF THE TRIBE] BECAUSE THEIR BLOOD IS RIGHT BELOW THE REQUIREMENT. THESE ARE PEOPLE WHO ARE INVOLVED IN CEREMONIES AND IN THE CULTURE. WE’RE HURTING OUR OWN MEMBERS BECAUSE WE’RE STILL USING THIS BROKEN SYSTEM.