Miranda Belarde-Lewis on Mixing Tradition and Modernity

Marlowe Katoney’s (Navajo) Angry Birds - Tree of Life (2012)

On Tuesday, Feb. 6, the art history department held their annual Lee Frank Lecture in the Lang Performing Arts Center cinema. This year, Miranda Belarde-Lewis, an assistant professor of North American Indigenous Knowledge at the University of Washington’s Information School, spoke about contemporary indigenous art. More specifically, she spoke to the blending of contemporary visual imagery, such as ones that symbolize technology, and traditional indigenous art-making techniques that result in works reminding viewers of the oppression indigenous people still face in America.

Speaking for the “visual sovereignty,” Belarde-Lewis started her talk describing her family’s smokehouse, where they would sell salmon. It was here that she traded jars of salmon for a weaving with Marlowe Katoney’s (Navajo) Angry Birds – Tree of Life (2012). Made to be a gift to Belarde-Lewis’ son, this weaving takes from the traditional Tree of Life design, with characters from the video game Angry Birds added onto the branches. This was done, as explained by Belarde-Lewis, to provide her son with a deeper connection to the work. In other words, by adding a sense of modernity to traditional Navajo design, Katoney provided the work’s traditional ties with a higher sense of importance.

This blend of tradition and modernity was described by Belarde-Lewis as “visual sovereignty,” or the synthesis of traditional ideas with contemporary vocabulary to describe the dispossession of material and visual culture in indigenous societies. Contemporary indigenous art uses this blend to bring to light some of the most pressing matters affecting indigenous land today. In doing so, these artists are helping to protect and spread indigenous systems of knowledge, philosophies, and practices rooted in the social and spiritual worlds that function to ensure the survival of indigenous communities. These systems of knowledge actively fight against Euro-American economic values by placing more value on knowledge rather than products and materialistic goods.

One of the most influential artworks shown by Belarde-Lewis is QR/Bar Code (2013) by Vilma Kee Craig (Navajo). This weaving depicts a pseudo American flag, in which the stars and stripes are replaced with a QR code and a bar code. Although not originally intended to be scannable, Craig’s skill in weaving permitted it. Besides showcasing the artist’s skill, the ability to scan the QR code is an example of the passing down of the tradition of weaving in indigenous art. When scanned, the code shows viewers a house that was foreclosed on in Craig’s town. As explained by both Belarde-Lewis and Craig, foreclosure is an American concept that is an extension of the theft of indigenous land. It is an action taken by the government to remind its citizens that it can come into your life and steal your home and land. The blend of traditional Navajo weaving techniques and an appropriation of the American flag depict a feeling of broken promises of what it means to live freely in the supposed “land of the free.”

Talking Tintype Demonstration, by Will Wilson (Diné), in 2018 is also an artwork Belarde-Lewis described as combining modern technology with indigenous tradition. Made to give back agency to indigenous people photographed in ways that took away their ability to tell their own stories, these tintypes add movement to photographs. Using an app, viewers can scan the photographs depicting indigenous peoples in traditional clothes performing ceremonies and partaking in ceremonial dances. Viewers can also reveal a video and audio which add context to the photo. Whereas one photograph may show a subject in the middle of a dance, an attached video allows viewers to see the cultural practice and more clearly understand the dance being depicted. The videos adds context to the photos, which in turn heightens their importance. The images begin to speak for themselves, rather than having a curator or didactic speak for them. In doing so, Wilson gives back agency to these subjects, allowing them to tell their stories themselves. 

By describing the incorporation of modern motifs and technology to traditional art-making techniques, contemporary indigenous artists are making art that brings light to the injustices put upon them by the American government. Their art is incredibly important to study and support, as it provides these artists with a sense of visual sovereignty. It also allows them to inform others about their culture and traditions. In doing so, they are able to use their art to take back their agency and write their own narrative.

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