New York

Edgar Heap of Birds

American Indian Community House Gallery/Museum

Male identity in Western culture has tended to be defined in terms of relations of power that circulate around gender and cultural difference––an identity in support of which an abundance of anthropological and zoological data has been assembled to “prove” that the inferiority of women and others is the “natural” order of things. Edgar Heap of Bird's work has always recognized this situation as a problem of rhetoric, of a measure of the untranslatability between disparate entities, but one that nevertheless has had serious effects upon the psychic and social well-being of his people in Oklahoma Indian Territory.

Heap of Bird's recent installation, Heh No Wah Maun Stun He Dun (What Makes a Man, 1987) was doubly provocative, as it refused to present the victimized Indian position with which white liberalism identifies or to image male “Indianness” by stereotypes of either mainstream or indigenous culture. Instead, the position presented was one of contemporary survival and future strength: a gathering together and consolidation of the values that traditionally gave the Indian man his identity in the world. The installation consisted of four paintings and four composite language drawings alluding to the significance of the number four in the Tsistsistas (“Cheyenne”) cosmogony. The paintings––rectangular canvases painted with irregular shapes in nonprimary hues juxtaposed to suggest spatiality––appear abstract, and yet they evoke images of fallen autumn leaves, of sunlight and sky dappled through trees, or of the colors of the artist's local landscape. Each surface suggests a unification of elements––air, earth, stone, water, fire, and vegetation––in which all parts, great or small, are given equal consideration. The narrative titles (Sweat Lodge Fire––Lava Rock, They Built a Fire in Summer, The Circle Was Hot, and Old Man Sat Calm Near the Heat, all 1987), seem ironic in relation to the tendency of Modernist abstraction to impose transcendental references on paintings. In contrast, Heap of Bird's titles are wholly pragmatic and devoid of the hokey spiritualism of New Age whites, although they refer to the experience of the sweat lodge, a ceremony of communal or individual purification and release of energies from which almost no one who wishes to participate is excluded.

The colors of the paintings are echoed by those of the pastel drawings. The latter are grouped according to the primary categories of a man's life: Self, Sexual, Tribal Warrior, and Boy-Woman-Family, all 1986–87. Each group comprises 15 language statements––short phrases or word juxtapositions in vertical sequence that recall the subtle rhythms and lyrical economy of Native American dance and song. While the drawings do not have the mass-media references of the artist's earlier typographical work, they possess an immediacy and a sense of real material existence appropriate to their subject.

Self is a dialogue between a desire for attachment and a feeling of alienation (ENTER DARK POOLS . . . STATE OF RAGE . . . ), a theme that develops, through the different levels of the Native American man's relations with others, into a sense of emotional commitment and social responsibility that is formally expressed in the warrior society vow (TRIBE ON BACK, from Tribal Warrior). While as Tribal-Warrior says, he CAN'T CANCEL PRIVATE POWER, it is clear that in the Tsistsistas schema, individual drives are directed through a social system that actively avoids the development of despotic hierarchies and that respects women's equality (ASK NOTHING SHE, from Self; LADY HER OWN, from Boy-Woman-Family). Like many colonized peoples, Native Americans quickly learned that language was a weapon to be used against them. However, in Heap of Bird's work the blade has turned around. He cuts, dismembers, or reverses the English language; he invades it with his own; or, as in Heh No Wah Maun Stun He Dun, he infuses its interstices with a disturbing and alien identity.

Jean Fisher