New York

Frank Bigbear Jr.

Bockley Gallery

Among the effects of colonization has been the perversion of the cultural signs of colonized peoples. What the colonizer regards as a positive attribute of the colonized is frequently appropriated to reinforce his own power (hence the theft of Indian names and their remotivation toward macho images of football teams and trucks), and what is deemed negative is eradicated or trivialized. Even alienation has become a cliché under dominant culture. Frank Bigbear’s work, as it searches through the morass of media clichés that entraps his people, nonetheless uncovers an intensity beyond the sign and the reach of white appropriation—a vibration where reality exists not in entities but in relations, in the flow and exchange of energies that constitute and unite entities. Here there is no privileged instant of time or space, no privileged individual or artwork that can be set above the sociopolitical economy of the whole. Caring thus reaches out beyond the boundaries of the reservation or the urban ghetto to encompass the organism of the world. Here we might begin to appreciate the dilemma of peoples caught up in alien forces but for whom making connections is part of their truth.

Bigbear’s drawings in Prisma colored pencils on paper are visual extensions in time and space. The choice of medium invokes the pencil and ledger-book drawings that indigenous peoples often made while incarcerated in army stockades, and whose themes refer to traditions like the winter count tribal records on buffalo hides. If Bigbear’s work can be said to “appropriate” from the visual languages of Western art, it is in his deliberate references to its most famous cultural appropriator, Pablo Picasso, and to Surrealism. Thunder Birds, 1985–86, has something of the camivalesque spirit of Joan Miró. The work depicts war-bonneted riders and horses, flanked by suns and flying saucers, but there is no isolation of figure and ground; the figures ripple in a single rhythmic motion. An empathy with Surrealism makes sense, since this movement attempted to illuminate the role played by the unconscious, and particularly dreamwork, in conscious life. Ironically, while Freud was formulating his theories of the unconscious and restoring the value of the dream to Western culture, the U.S. Government was attempting to eradicate practices involving alternative states of consciousness traditional to Indian cultures. The sun dance, which was important in establishing and strengthening identity and collective bonds, was outlawed in the 1880s and could not be reinstated for more than 50 years. Bigbear’s drawing Sun Dance, 1985–86, depicts two large figures in an ecstatic trance, and a third dancer suspended by the chest—the strengthening ceremony that so offended delicate white sensibilities. Night Spirit, 1986, rises from the earth to mobilize the forces of the cosmos in a pyrotechnic display of color and interconnecting patterns. The vortex of energies that sweeps up the swallow in flight as it transforms into an anhinga (the messenger bird carrying prayers to the spiritual realm) also sweeps aside the Westernized figure in its path.

While these drawings reflect the joyousness of Native American cultures and the continuity provided by their ceremonies, there are others that comment on their less than felicitous relations with whites. A shadow has already fallen in Playful Evening Spirits, 1986, as one warrior, regarding himself in a hand mirror, sees only a gloomy and pale-faced reflection. Urban Spirits, 1986, takes us into the decayed interior of an urban ghetto where the buffalo people are disintegrating under the effects of alcohol. The mirror reveals a warrior’s face disfigured by disease, reminding us that genocide has many faces (and one of the more diabolical acts perpetrated against the people was the distribution of smallpox-infected blankets as part of their winter rations). If “history” is constantly invoked, it is not only because the storyteller does not forget, but because it is ever present, written across the broken body of the land and in the eyes of its peoples. But the white man’s history is not the same as theirs.

There are three stories in Time Zones, 1985–86: on the left, the synchronous, reversible time of myth and collective memory; on the right, the limbo time of Western culture with its media fantasies and stereotypes and loss of distinctions between truth and falsity, as evidenced by the two-faced character in the stovepipe hat; and in the center, the consequence of the white man’s irreversible time, where a bloody sunset closes over an apocalyptic wasteland. Presiding over this terminal scene is the weary figure of an Indian on horseback from James E. Fraser’s sculpture The End of the Trail, 1915. As the Indian nations, like other indigenous peoples, had been the guardians of a unique ecosystem long before the history of the white man, so they may yet be the sole surviving witnesses of its demise. Frank Bigbear guides us through the evidence of our willful amnesia.

Jean Fisher