Reworking Native identity
Artist Damian Jim
IN the novella The Langoliers, from Stephen King’s collection Four Past Midnight, the passengers on a red-eye flight across the country awaken to find they’ve passed through a rift in time, thus attracting the tale’s eponymous monsters. The langoliers are giant orbs with razor-sharp teeth that devour everything, leaving only darkness in their wake. Diné artist Damian Jim offers up his own version of these monsters, calling them “soul eaters” in paintings and drawings that feature yellow Pac-Man-like smileyfaces with wicked, toothy grins. Jim himself comes off as much friendlier than some of his creations — Pop Art and lowbrow-style works that draw on graffiti art, illustration, psychedelia, and surrealism. If you put him up for an evening, he’s more likely to leave a part of his own soul behind — in the form of a personalized drawing for you — than eat yours.
The artist, who is based in Phoenix, has previously shown work in Santa Fe at Southwestern Association for Indian Art’s Indian Market Edge show, a special exhibition with a contemporary art focus that runs concurrently with Indian Market in August. “I started doing Edge because it was curated, and also, I didn’t have to put in for a booth,” he said. Whereas SWAIA’s main event promotes more traditional art forms such as Native jewelry, pottery, and weaving, artists like Jim, whose work falls squarely in the contemporary category, are often overlooked. The Edge shows are intended to correct that imbalance. “It seems like it was only a few years ago that people were starting to be more receptive to art that’s not really traditional Native American with the classic Western imagery and all that,” he said. Jim was accepted into Indian Market Edge again for 2017 and will be showing digital prints there as well as at a booth at Seeds over the same weekend. “My art style is not very traditional Native American. As a Native artist, I have to find alternative avenues for marketing my work.”
Although some of Jim’s art skewers stereotypes of Native identity, his subjects range broadly and he embraces a street art aesthetic. Jim also works with Native communities on projects that promote their culture. In the mid-to-late 1990s he entered into a collaboration with the weavers and basket makers of Twin Rocks Trading Post in Bluff, Utah. Jim created hundreds of graphic designs based on traditional Navajo motifs, many of which were later incorporated into the basket and textile designs of master weavers. The project resulted in a book, Byting Willows:
Contemporary Native Designs. “During the whole process for doing this, I had to learn the back stories for a lot of the Navajo myths, and through that, I got to learn about a lot of the symbolism of the imagery itself. We do preserve our culture because it is very rich.”
Where Jim’s work makes reference to Native identity, it does so through a filter of pop-culture references. For instance, one of his paintings called Erratum depicts Native dancers in formation, but rather than sporting traditional garb, each is dressed as a superhero such as Wonder Woman or the Flash. They are what Jim, inspired by Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods, calls “the new gods.”
“I use the influence of mythology in order to do retellings from the point of view of our current outlook on life, basically,” he said. “Say there are issues affecting the Navajo Nation ecologically. I can create a painting that talks about that using characters out of our own mythology, which makes it more relatable, but is also an updated view on how the things we were taught are still very relevant and affect everything around us.” — Michael Abatemarco
The Time of Messages in a Bottle, 2016, mixed media on canvas
I HAD TO LEARN THE BACK STORIES FOR A LOT OF THE NAVAJO MYTHS, AND THROUGH THAT, I GOT TO LEARN ABOUT A LOT OF THE SYMBOLISM OF THE IMAGERY ITSELF.