View of “Native Art Department International,” 2020. From left: Installation, 2020; Untitled (Carl Beam), 2017; Hot Tip Tiger Tail, 2018–20.

View of “Native Art Department International,” 2020. From left: Installation, 2020; Untitled (Carl Beam), 2017; Hot Tip Tiger Tail, 2018–20.

Native Art Department International

The husband-and-wife team of Jason Lujan and Maria Hupfield—aka Native Art Department International, a collaborative enterprise that, according to the duo, operates as an “emancipation from identity-based artwork”—presented “Bureau of Aesthetics,” a solo exhibition at Mercer Union and NADI’s first in Canada. Barriers, both physical and visual, abound: At the entrance to the exhibition is a large, Judd-like structure built from sheets of fluorescent-pink acrylic wedged between wood beams (Construction, 2019). The rectilinear form literally interrupts viewers’ paths and screws with our sight lines, distracting us further by reflecting a large graphic black-and-white wall painting, which calls to mind the hull of a battleship covered with dazzle camouflage. At the center of the show is Installation, 2020, a set of interlocking L-shaped walls built from more mirrored acrylic and Sheetrock. Several sections have been left unfinished to display the steel framing that forms the support structure for a series of smaller artworks, a video installation, and a roughly made bookshelf showcasing spiral-bound photocopies of texts by Situationist leader Guy Debord, Uruguayan novelist Eduardo Galeano, and excerpts from The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook (1999) by humorist Joshua Piven. Much like dazzle camouflage, the environment created by the artists evades perception by overwhelming the senses rather than trying to successfully blend into its background.

Failing at “mimicry”—or, when the colonized subvert the values, aesthetics, and traditions of their colonizers by imitating them poorly, per theorist Homi K. Bhabha—is clearly one of NADI’s central objectives. Lujan and Hupfield are Indigenous artists who, with tongues planted firmly in cheeks, adopt the structure and moniker of a bureaucratic body as a way of detourning institutional expectations to produce work that adheres to stereotypical assumptions about what “Native American” art should look like. Two pieces appearing within the central display structure of the show bear this notion out: There Is No Then and Now; Only Is and Is Not, 2018, and Untitled (Carl Beam), 2017. The former is a single-channel video that documents Bronx-born artist Dennis RedMoon Darkeem dancing in an empty auditorium in full Yamasee Yat’siminoli regalia; the jingle cones on his boots provide the soundtrack while intertitles describe his experiences as a Black and Indigenous man who, because of clichés about indigeneity and skin color, is rarely perceived as both. The latter work is made up of a neon NO U TURN sign superimposed over a lithograph (Traffic, 1997) by late Ojibwe artist Carl Beam. The print stacks images of a raven and a traffic light atop one another, contrasting Indigenous and Western modes of measuring direction and distance. While Beam’s art was eventually accepted into some of North America’s largest institutional collections, his more Conceptual works were frequently overlooked in favor of pieces that had more obvious references to his Indigenous heritage. NADI’s reappropriation of Beam’s print suggests that such essentialist methods of classifying art and artists are a dead end.

An installation, performance props, and a suite of videos at the back of the gallery attest to the collective’s commitment to artistic camaraderie, decolonial politics, and noncompetition. Among these was Everything Sacred is Far Away, 2019, a video that deploys a group of NADI collaborators who use clunky cardboard replicas of real-life objects and artworks (such as an I ♥ NY mug and a Rothko painting) to play out a series of events from the life of German-American anthropologist Franz Boas. They cheekily comment on questions of tribal authenticity and the benefits of Western civilization and “convenience” (“Amazon Prime two-day delivery!” one actor proclaims. “Vibrators! The internet!” another rejoins). Reminiscent of community-access television, organized-labor role-play, and strategies from the Theatre of the Oppressed, the episodes are not meant to be realistic or convincing. In their sheer absurdity they reveal something honest about intercultural interactions: that they are always messy, deeply strange, and perpetually under construction.