12 July 2011

Questionartist: In Conversation with Bobby Martin and Tony Tiger

Bobby Martin and Tony Tiger
Tony Tiger and Bobby Martin are two artists and educators from Tahlequah on an art-inspired road trip to Alberta, Canada. I had the pleasure of visiting with them while they traveled through Santa Fe. Tiger, previously interviewed on this blog here, is a Sac and Fox-Muscogee Creek-Seminole mixed media artist and photographer from Muskogee, Oklahoma. He is head of the Bacone College art department, the oldest continuing Native art department in the country. Martin is a Muscogee Creek painter, printmaker, and designer who teaches at John Brown University, a private college in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. Together they are members of the Southeastern Indian Artists Association, a non-profit group working to promote Eastern Woodlands art.

What are some of the issues and concerns in your corner of the contemporary Native art world?

Tiger: Some of our little group, the SEIAA, are pushing to show outside the area. However the market shows hurt the artist by lowering their expectations.
Martin: For some artists, that’s the best they can do.
Tiger: If you’re in it for the cash. But if you are into it for the art, then you need to focus on that. For Native artists, we need to ask ourselves what we’re doing as art. Such as the water spider image [we had previously been discussing] — do you just regurgitate that image or try to add something to it? Do you try to make it your own and bring it into your own times?
Martin: Joseph [Erb] tries to start that discussion on his Facebook discussion group. What does it mean to be a Native fine artist? Should you show at a booth show?
Tiger: As contemporary Native artists, we aren’t given much credibility as artists. At Eiteljorg, they have me a questionnaire. Who taught you how do art? Your ancestors? It was all about marketing instead of asking about subject matter/content/concept.
Martin: That university in Indonesia that where I presented and talked asked about Native art, but they really just wanted to know about marketing. They have a lot of tribal artists, who are wondering how to sell their art. They don’t see it as creativity or a way to communicate ideas.
Tiger: Walking around Santa Fe, so many galleries carry the exact same work. Here people are looking for the “exotic.” It’s not LA; it’s the East Coast. They want something “Native”—but only the stereotype. You have to experiment and show in other venues, not just Native venues. It goes back to: what are you?
Martin: It’s a double-edged sword. Many Native artists would prefer to break out.
Tiger: I’ve shown in both [Native and non-Native venues]. By participating in Native art markets—biting the bullet—that’s just not the road I want to hoe. The economic downfall has been good in some ways since the economic incentive to cater to the market has dwindled.
Martin: At some point you can’t worry about labels, you just need to make your art.
Tiger: At Bill Wiggins’ talk, we discussed how contemporary Native artists aren’t recognized today, but twenty years from now, they will be the ones who’s shown and studied. That’s what Rauschenberg said as well. So much art is about recreating the part. I’m recording my time period. It’s related to the past but it’s not the past. I love the old photos—that’s my father, that’s my great-great-grandfather. But my art records my time and how government policy is affecting my time.
Martin: Some of the artists in our little area, Roy Boney, Joseph Erb, and Troy Jackson are creating fresh work and branching out to multimedia. It stems from ideas we’re familiar with but moves on. That’s why I like printmaking. That’s where you can collaborate and experiment and get something new — some nice art out it. I’m not a scholar about Native art from all regions — just our corner, there’s good energy there.
Tiger: I like to go the markets, like the Heard. Just to see what is going on. For instance, Molly Murphy, the beadwork at Lovett’s. She incorporating science and medicine. She’s beaded works about tuberculosis and its effects on lungs.
Martin: Isn’t she the one beading about biology and scientific theories?
Tiger: I’d like to see contemporary Native art without boundaries. And that’s one reason I wanted to take this trip—get out of Oklahoma and see what’s out there.
Martin: I want to take all these different mixtures of people—get them into my studio to makes prints together—and get a show out of that. Collaboration is the most interesting thing going on right now.
Tiger: When museums start showing contemporary art of living artists, it makes a big difference.
Martin: It’s cool that the Sam Noble Museum is collecting contemporary art.
Tiger: That gives you credibility—museum collections.
Martin: But when artists ask about marketing and how to get into museums… that’s not my focus. I’m in seven museums’ collections, but did I go out and look for those? No.
Tiger: But someone saw your work at the shows you do.
Martin: If I tried to put a booth up at Mayfest [art market in Tulsa], I couldn’t sell a thing. You just have to keep producing and producing art that’s true to you. Trying to create art to sell—that’s a sure route to failure.
Tiger: But that happens all the time.
Martin: You see artists painting the same thing for ten years. Well, I’m still painting the same things, but it’s still interesting to me!

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