Artist Wendy Red Star not only delves into the culture and history of her Native American tribe in the latest exhibition at the San Antonio Museum of Art, but she also invites visitors to experience it.
This happens, in part, thanks to her piece, “Sweat Lodge,” which is a sculpture inspired by the traditional sweat lodges of the Apsáalooke (or Crow) reservation in Montana where she grew up. Hers is made of sleeping bags, blankets and other fabrics and invites viewers inside with a new immersive video she created that is projected inside the lodge and showcases the landscape of the lodge. Montana (including the sound of its characteristic wind).
“It really is a feast for the eyes,” says Lana Meador, associate curator of modern and contemporary art at SAMA, referring to the exhibition Wendy Red Star: A Scratch on the Earthopen from Friday February 11 to May 8.
Meador says that while the exhibit offers an education in Crow culture, it also weaves universal themes of family, complex identity, Indigenous roots in feminism and history through its 40 exhibits. Red Star works in a variety of mediums, which is evident in the exhibition through sculpture, photography, fiber art, mixed media works and more.
Red Star’s creativity is also apparent throughout the exhibition and goes hand in hand with its dedication to research and history. In its “1880 Crow Peace delegation” series, for example, Red Star uses historical portraits from the National Anthropological Archives of members of the 1880 Crow Peace delegation. The men pictured met with government officials that year to negotiate their land rights. Red Star takes the portraits and annotates them in red describing the men’s traditional regalia and adding notes and observations about the delegation and the individuals photographed that help provide the kind of cultural context that it believes has been stripped of the delegates in their official photos.
In the next gallery, a timeline spans the perimeter of the space and surrounds “Sweat Lodge”. It features family and archival photos from the tribe’s annual Crow Fair, which was started by the federal government in 1904 but has since become a tribe-led tradition. The timeline features cut-out photos with penciled annotations that point to traditional items, like wedding blankets and elk-tooth dresses, as well as people, including Red Star herself.
In another gallery, visitors will find the sound recording that resonates throughout the exhibition. Installed as part of the play “Let Them Have Their Voice”, the audio features wax cylinder recordings of Crow singers performing traditional songs in the early 20th century. The piece also includes 15 hand-cut paper constructions of Crow chieftains. The portraits are based on the 1908 book by photographer Edward S. Curtis North American Indian, which included photographs of Crow chiefs. In the Red Star article, the chiefs are removed from the photos, leaving behind silhouettes that restore anonymity to the chiefs, whose portraits were widely publicized after the book’s release. The gallery also displays a photo series titled “My Home Is Where My Teepee Sits”, which features photos showing Crow sweat lodges, churches, cars and broken down houses.
The exhibition was originally organized by the Newark Museum of Art, which entered into discussions with SAMA in 2020 about hosting the exhibition. A Red Star exhibit, “Isaahkawuatte (Old Man Coyote, Catholic Priest)” which features brightly painted coyote hunting decoys, wooden paddles and Pendleton serape blankets, is unique to SAMA’s exhibit.
The title of the exhibition, A scratch on the earthrefers to the period after 1880 when government policy focused on keeping the Crows on their reservation, or on one side of the “stripe”, which was a government-determined boundary.
Whether through annotations on historical photos, self-portraits or other pieces, Meador says Red Star’s work helps examine how Native American culture has sometimes been romanticized and appropriated in the United States.
A discussion of these questions and how Native Americans have been underrepresented or erased from art history will be the focus of SAMA’s annual Mays Symposium, scheduled for February 25-26. The event has both in-person and virtual offerings, including a virtual keynote talk by Red Star on February 25.
Wendy Red Star: A Scratch on the Earth
February 11-May 8
San Antonio Art Museum