Wendy Red Star produces photographs, textile-based works, and performances that situate her womanhood and Crow heritage as ontologically intertwined. Collaborating with fellow Indigenous artists, performers of other disciplines, and her daughter, Red Star documents her various achievements in the contemporary art world through strategies that have historical ties.
Ashley Stull Meyers: You have roots in Montana and Colorado. What influenced you to settle in Portland, Oregon, and why do you stay?
Wendy Red Star: I get up on the Crow Indian Reservation in southeastern Montana. My paternal side, the Red Star side, still lives there. My mother’s side resides in Colorado. I visit both quite frequently, and in this moment I’m splitting my time between Portland and a residency at the Denver Art Museum. I graduated from UCLA in 2006, and I arrived in Portland with my then-husband, who practices and teaches here. I stay because I feel like I’ve been really supported here. Most of my exhibitions and lectures take place outside of Portland, but it’s been a really fruitful studio base. You don’t have to live in a major art hub to sustain a career anymore, and I think that’s really important as “fine art” diversifies.
ASM: Being an artist or arts worker of color in Portland comes with a particular set of challenges. That the audience is overwhelmingly white here can be a consideration in deciding whether or not to engage that in the work you make. Do you acknowledge that in any explicit terms? Can it be a stumbling block to address Indigenous histories in a place with a troubling relationship to Indigenous populations?
WRS: I think it’s really interesting to be a Native artist within the conditions of Indigeneity as a sort of “invisible race” to many. In a way, I’m used to being the only Indigenous artist within my immediate context. It was that way in undergraduate as well as at UCLA. There are small pockets of Indigenous people in urban communities, but that feeling of isolation isn’t a new thing. I’ve always wanted to use my work as a vehicle for visibility and the Indigenous voice in such contexts. One of the messed-up questions you always get from audiences and critics alike is, “Do you ever think about making work that has nothing to do with Indigenous culture, and what would that look like?” It’s insulting because that’s who I am. It’s my experience of the world. It can feel like I’m an island, but that’s partially why I make the work. It’s also why I use social media the way I do—to connect with other Indigenous artists. If I can’t find or keep community here, I’ll do what I need to in order to keep it in other ways.
ASM: I’m glad you brought up social media because I feel as though the #ApsaalookeFeminist hashtag is pretty important. Can you share how that was born?
WRS: I’ve been on Instagram for about three years now and it lends itself to my work, as much of what I do is photo-based. I like the democracy of anyone having a camera and being able to construct an image or story within their own truth. Within the infrastructure of the platform, I started to explore what makes an Apsaalooké woman. I created the hashtag #ApsaalookeFeminist to discuss and reveal some of the things historically and culturally unique and specific to Crow women. I almost think of it as “counting coups.” We had a chief called Plenty Coups. Coups is a French word meaning “to strike,” and a lot of the chiefs were tasked with things like “counting coups” on their journey to becoming chiefs. Whenever I’m given the opportunity to make work with a university or institution or in collaboration with my daughter, I think of it as a coup from Native women who are underrepresented. The hashtag documents these various coups.
ASM: You’ve already mentioned both your daughter, Beatrice, and the Denver Art Museum. It’s pretty special to work with your child as a collaborator to the degree that you do. Can you explain that impulse and the work Beatrice is making with your guidance? What is the relationship between your practice and pedagogy?
WRS: It’s been really rewarding. I stopped working my forty-hour-a-week job to focus solely on my practice this year, and the circumstance of having Beatrice with me in the studio as a pragmatic measure gave birth to the collaboration. During the making period for my exhibition at the Portland Art Museum , I had a bunch of Xeroxed images of various chiefs that she colored over. When I saw them, I immediately thought that it was the next step for the historical ideas I was working with. What does the future hold for these studies and this knowledge? Watching my daughter work with it holds some beginnings to answers.
I included some of her mark-making in the exhibition, and the nice surprise that emerged was that at the opening, she was eager to take people around and tell them about her work. We worked with the Tacoma Art Museum after that, and did a performative tour of their Western art collection together. There were props and costumes. Beatrice dressed as some of the paintings and I acted as a docent. Some of the content was historical and other elements were made up. We performed something similar at the Portland Art Museum, where we created dioramas and took people’s portraits. Beatrice acted as the set director. For the work at Denver Art Museum, I gave it completely over to her. She decided on giving a tour. She selected objects from both the Native gallery and the Western Art gallery to speak about as a docent. She drew me a picture of what she felt it was appropriate for a docent to wear, and I made it. I go with the flow and build off her interests in the content. We’ve given lectures and I’ve had her sit on panels with me. She’s nine now, so we’ll see how much longer she’s interested. It’s been wonderful to have institutions take us seriously. It’s new territory.
ASM: You also made costumes for Alterations, your recent exhibition at Linfield College. Curator Josephine Zarkovich ingeniously paired your work with that of performance artist and drag performer Kaj-Anne Pepper. What commonalities do you think can be drawn between costume, gender, and power, both amongst the Crow and in culture at large?
WRS: I work a lot with the traditional outfit of Crow women, an elk-tooth dress. My particular dress was made for me when I was sixteen, but I’ve had some form of elk-tooth dress since I was a child. For me, it’s the ultimate symbol of Crow womanhood, from dancing to the work we do on horses. It embodies many different political messages that I want to share. It changes you to have it on—you stand taller and feel really dignified, you have an experience wearing it. I started sewing about nine years ago, it helps me strike a balance between my sculpture background and a more craft-like relationship to objects.
One of the things Native artists constantly run up against is being placed in theme shows with offensive titles like We’re Still Here or Not All of Us Are Dead; I’d love more curators to situate my work in a broader context the way Alterations did. Because Kaj-Anne has a background in dance and drag performance, Josephine and I thought it would be fun to have him activate my outfits. Too often Native dress is shown in pictures or on dress forms, but rarely in an animated state. This was an opportunity to see my work in action, so I made Kaj-Anne a dress. The rest of the textiles were a play on a traditional men’s dress called a Hot Dancer outfit. I wanted to play a lot with the indicators of an outfit men would usually wear, but to make the silhouettes feminine. In the end, most of them looked nothing like a Hot Dancer’s outfit, but it was fun to think about the tradition of it.
ASM: There’s a politics to drag in the assertion that gender is mutable. Contemporary power dynamics between men and women are also increasingly changeable, as opposed to even just decades ago. Was there something about the show that took on that mutability within the Crow culture?
WRS: You know what’s interesting? I’m a single parent, so that assertion of mutability in teaching my daughter about Crow culture is certainly present. She doesn’t have a male Crow figure here in Portland, so I feel like I play both mother and father in that one way. There’s certainly something in my work about occasionally wanting or needing to wear “a man’s outfit.” Religion was imposed upon Crow history in the early 1800s and used as a way to erase our culture. There are these strange Eurocentric standards for relationships and gender roles that crept in. It’s good to acknowledge and play around with those histories and taboos, and using the clothes and textiles is just one entry point.
Wendy Red Star will have a solo exhibition at the Cue Foundation in New York in June 2017. She will also participate, with author/editor Sharon Louden, in the book tour for The Artist as Cultural Producer: Living and Sustaining a Creative Life.