We’ve been waiting for this to happen and we’re mighty glad it did. Museum of Northern Arizona is hosting an exhibition themed around Native Art inspired by the movie franchise Star Wars. The movies have attracted quite a substantial number of Native artists in recent years and have become a pop-cultural touchstone of sorts. We wrote about this attraction on the blog back in 2017 and have since then seen the interest grow even larger. It is always interesting to see artists interpret the space saga in their particular ways. There is a highly readable article in Forbes which charts the different aspects to Star Wars that might explain the appeal it holds to Native artists. The aspects range from the philosophical and political ideas guiding the heroes of Star Wars to similarities in the landscapes. The desert scenery of Luke Skywalker’s childhood home planet Tatooine will in particular resonate with artists familiar with the nature around New Mexico and Arizona.
The Force Is With Our People at Museum of Northern Arizona is on view trough March 2020 and includes Kiva Gallery favorites Ryan Singer and Randy Kemp.
Like I’ve stated before here on the blog, Ryan Singer’s art is a glorious combination of 1980s era skateboard graphics, rock poster art, and comic books.
Recently, Singer has taken his pop cultural obsessions to the next level by fusing iconic Star Wars characters with traditional Navajo milieus. In Singer’s paintings, Tuba City becomes Luke Skywalker’s home planet Tatooine and gigantic AT AT walkers can be seen marching through a wintery Shiprock, New Mexico. Somehow, the transformation manages to come off as completely logical. Ryan Singer can make the seemingly incompatible come together in a completely natural way. This is also the case in the paintings I want to put into focus today.
One of Singer’s stylistic trademarks is his use of heavy outlines. Of course, strong outlines are a big part of the low brow/comic book aesthetic that Singer has adopted. But they are rarely associated with scenes of a more solemn and introspective character. That’s why I’ve been very taken with two of Singer’s paintings in Kiva Gallery’s collection. One is of an elderly woman staring out of the frame into the unknown. The fact that the viewer doesn’t see what she’s gazing at has the effect of turning the gaze inward rather than outward. Singer’s traditionally thick line work underscores this experience. There is much emotional content that can be read into the effect of the outline. The outline is so heavy it makes her seem anchored to the landscape. At the same time it closes the figure off and makes her appear isolated from her surroundings. The landscape behind her is simplified so that the woman pops out even more, which makes it impossible for the viewer to ignore her introspection. This is one of those rare paintings that instantly catapults the viewer into pondering the inner life of a figure that came into being solely through paint. Like Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, the viewer can’t help but wonder “what on earth could she be thinking about”. Yes, I just compared Ryan Singer to Leonardo Da Vinci. The comparison is apt but perhaps not adequate, because in a way the contemplation in front of Singer’s painting is more profound than Mona-Lisa’s. This is after all a Native woman so you know she’s seen some shit in her days. More than the smirk on the face of her more famous art historical relative would suggest.
Kiva Gallery also has another Ryan Singer painting with an unusually serene mood. It is a deceptively simple scene. But if you allow it, the outline will tell a deeper story about time and stasis, tradition and generational renewal. Again, it’s a painting of a woman in a landscape. In contrast to the woman above, this woman is young. Her activity, however, is old. She is spinning wool. The landscape around her seems to respond to her activity because it curves around the girl almost to envelope her. But there is that thick outline again, tracing the contours of the girl’s body and shielding her off from her surroundings. It is almost as if the landscape is moving more than she is. A strong outline reifies movement rather than capture it. In a way it stops movement and freezes it which makes the experience of superhero comics, which are of course full of movement, deliciously paradoxical. The girl spinning wool seems remarkably still despite being caught mid-motion. From the perspective of her activity, time has stopped moving. The girl probably learned how to spin wool from her mother, and she in turn will teach her daughter. The activity doesn’t belong to her, she belongs to the activity that has existed before her and will continue to exist long after she is gone.
I’m very grateful for these paintings and proud to have them grace the walls of Kiva Gallery. While they are completely representative of Ryan Singer’s painterly style, the quiet subject matter makes at least this viewer more attentive to the function of his artistic techniques and the stories they tell.
Oh wow! Didn’t know this existed. The textile manufacturing company Pendleton has released a series of Star Wars blankets. Luke Skywalker and fam meet the tribes as familiar Star Wars motifs are set against backgrounds of traditional Native patterns. We’ve written about the popularity of the Star Wars franchise among contemporary Native American artists. My guess is that these blankets are at the top of these artists christmas wish lists.
Pendleton has produced one unique blanket for each movie in the latest trilogy, as well as a couple of others. My favourite blanket is probably the one that accompanies Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which premiered just last week. It has a beautiful red, blue, black and white color scheme and incorporates the Star Wars iconography into the overall Native pattern.
Sadly, Kiva Gallery doesn’t stock Pendleton Star Wars blankets just yet, but we do have several other Pendleton blankets for sale. Swedish winter may not be as gruelling as on Hoth, but almost. A Pendleton blanket is the perfect christmas gift, it will keep you warm and cozy all through winter.
Yesterday marked the 40th anniversary of the Star Wars franchise. What better way to celebrate than to show some examples of how Star Wars has appealed to Native artists.
Besides a notable similarity between traditional Hopi hairstyles and how Princess Leia wears her hair, as illustrated by Nicholas Galanin, Star Wars has little direct relevance to Native culture. But of course Native peoples watch movies too. And the classic tale of good triumphing over evil seem to hold something different for everyone to identify with.
Navajo artist Ryan Singer, represented by Kiva Gallery, relies heavily on pop culture in his painting so it’s a small surprise that he has devoted a series of recent paintings to Star Wars. Singer explained the attraction in a radio interview:
“as I got older I started to, kind of like fusing pop-culture imagery with the Navajo culture. Somehow that Star Wars just, kind of like, manifested in there. And, I always thought of Tatooine as the desert that was close to Tuba City where I grew up, and the Sand People nomadic people real similar to how the Navajos were. So, there were all these similarities I saw in the movies. There really is, like sort of, two different worlds, you know, as far as culture. I try to bring them together and mix them up.”
The imaginary movie posters of Jeffrey Veregge has been featured on the blog before. Veregge depicts familiar Star Wars motifs and characters in the artistic style inherited from his Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe.
A few years back, Andy Everson did a series of Star Wars – themed paintings that had a political twist. In Everson’s hands, Star Wars battle of light and dark was referenced in order to address political concerns amongst his own tribe.
Steven Paul Judd specializes in “impossible” encounters of pop-cultural icons with Native American history. His photoshopped juxtapositions are often strikingly
funny but also remarkable for demonstrating a missed encounter and the exclusion of Native culture from mainstream pop culture.
Excluded or not, the above artists have all taken something they like and made it their own, even though the original content has no explicit relation to their culture whatsoever. I don’t want to read to much into this, but in a way I find the interest in Star Wars encouraging. It demonstrates a DIY approach to inclusion. Looking at these images I feel – If I may allow myself to partake in Star Wars geekiness and reference the revised subtitle of the very first Star Wars movie – A New Hope that Native culture may take a bigger slice of pop culture one day.