Re­work­ing Na­tive iden­tity

Artist Damian Jim

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

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.

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