09 July 2012

Heather Ahtone Reads Beneath the Surface

Parking Lot, Joe Feddersen (Colville), glass, 2003
In her 2009 essay, “Designed to Last,” Choctaw-Chickasaw artist, writer, and curator heather ahtone proposed a means of critiquing Indigenous American art based on Indigenous art theory. In her essay “Reading Beneath the Surface: Joe Feddersen’s Parking Lot,” presented at the College Art Association Conference and published earlier this year in Wicazo Sa Review, she puts her ideas into action by critiquing a sculpture by Joe Feddersen using Indigenous methodologies.

Her introduction lets us know exactly what's at stake. “Every time an Indigenous artist creates an object that reflects concepts rooted within her culture this same artists is perpetuating the culture one more day as an act of self-determination,” Ahtone writes at the opening of the essay. She continues, “While every effort of political and religious assault has been made historically to subdue these same cultures, their survival can be partially attributed to the continued production of visual and performance arts” (Ahtone 73).

Ahtone writes that Indigenous epistemology—“ways of knowing”—differs fundamentally from Western ways of knowing (74). While this is relatively obvious to most readers, she further points out that Indigenous learning is not “parallel or perpendicular” (74); that is, Indigenous knowledge is not the Other or opposite of Western knowledge. Indigenous knowledge is not universal but instead must be grounded in local tribal cultures and worldviews. To critique an artwork based on Indigenous values, Ahtone examines materiality, metaphor and symbolism, and cultural reciprocity (74).

Joe Feddersen, whose glass sculpture is critiqued here, is Okanagan and an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in Washington State. He earned his MFA at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and was a printmaker and basket weaver before moving into glass art. Using textures from Plateau textiles that symbolize aspects of the natural environment, Feddersen creates a dialogue about the shifting environment and the impact of human development in the Columbia Basin (Askren).

Collaborating with Tlingit artist Preston Singletary, Feddersen embarked on an Urban Indian series. In 2003, he created Parking Lot, a 14 inch tall blown and sandblasted glass sculpture. The translucent, milky-white surface carries the texture of …, which is overlaid with an olive green rim and structures of perpendicular black lines.

Ahtone sees the overall cylindrical form as being reminiscent of a “sally bag,” a flexible basket common throughout the Plateau region (76). The materiality of the piece juxtaposes the implied basket’s soft and pliable surface with the rigidity of glass. Navajo-Wasco artist and author Elizabeth Woody wrote, “Feddersen’s use of glass speaks of our human fragility” and of his choice of the color white, Woody writes “the shell of the basket with the ephemeral density of a cloud” (78).

Feddersen’s use of metaphor and symbolism is overt and deliberate. A metaphor directly substitutes on concept or object for another, while a symbol implies something else. The symbol might be a much more simplistic shorthand for the concept it references. The Plateau weaving designs that Feddersen has incorporating into his printmaking, weaving, and glasswork are extremely spare, abstract geometric designs, and yet they are symbolic and inspired by elements seen in daily life, such as snake tracks on the ground (Askren). The textured surface of Parking Lot has four repeating patterns of chevrons etched on its surface. Feddersen explains that the chevrons “are actually the designs for woman in Plateau culture, kind of like an hourglass design, kind of a winding vase” (79). He learned traditional symbolism from Okanagan weavers but an elder pointed out that the meanings of the widespread symbols change from community to communities (79). By using this symbol, Feddersen “invigorates it as a continued part of the cultural dialogue and… contemporizes the language in its usage” (79).

Vessels themselves are commonly allegories for women. In the Okanagan worldview, “woman is a living metaphor for the earth” (79). The art audience can automatically juxtapose this view with the European-American view of woman as earth, and therefore, ripe for domination. Dynamical tension is conjured between these two referenced worldviews. Okanagan oral history describes the earth “as a woman ‘who gives birth to life forms’” who was once a human being and is still alive (79-80). The etched basket surface suggested grass, which is seen as the hair of the living female earth (80).

Then the black lines on the vessel are diagrams for parking lots, invented in the late 1920s. Ahtone sees these as referencing contemporary migration patterns, which “form the basis of how most Americans relate to the earth—through a mediated system of transit routes…” (80).

Cultural reciprocity is the third lens in which Ahtone critiques Indigenous art and is “an act of gratitude by an artist for their culture heritage” (81). Feddersen is keenly aware of place-based culture, and he incorporates landmarks, or “vital signs,” such as electric lines and railroad tracks into his expression of evolving Okanagan culture (81). “By using the traditional signs,” Feddersen says, “we talk about what the meaning is and they become part of our visual vocabulary rather than something that is purely historical” (82).

Looking at the artwork from a strict formalist approach, that is, looking only at visual aesthetic qualities of the work—an approach espoused by mid-20th century art critics—would completely miss the content of a work such as Parking Lot. Feddersen deliberately uses contemporary imagery and symbols to bring his cultural traditions into the present. Ahtone’s critique brings the content forward in a manner that could be understood by Native and non-Native readers alike. Personally, I’m well acquainted with the mental wall that some non-Native art audiences reach when viewing Indigenous artwork. Facing the situation of having to understand the cultural contexts of hundreds of different tribes seems overwhelming to fully understand Native art; however, it’s not a matter of getting cultural background to then get the works’ content. The cultural background is much the works’ content, and further understanding the worldview enhances the audience’s understanding of being Human.
  • heather ahtone, “Reading Beneath the Surface: Joe Feddersen’s Parking Lot,” Wicazo Sa Review, 27, no. 1 (Spring 2012), 73–84.
  • Mique’l.Askren,  “Joe Feddersen,” IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts: Vision Project. Web.


Anonymous said...

yakoke, America, for your good work. it is so good to see how your interpretation of the article translates. i hope that others will be engaged to look to our cultures for the guides we need now to make our way into the future as Indigenous people. thank you. heather.

Anonymous said...

This the type of discussion we need going and public for Indigenous American art to truly be considered seriously as art rather than as a niche (read "exotic") collectible item. Thank you, both of you.
Matt Jarvis

Anonymous said...

Asking others to expand so that they can "see" a point of view that they have not been required to be accustomed to is the mission of art. Niche and exotic art labels are the labels of colonized thought and privilege. The art has always been "serious." The majority buyers have minoritized the art to downplay their person and group responsibility towards it.

Reid Gómez, Navajo said...

America, I love your closing words. We're all engaged in the project of remaining human. What we make of that project shapes us individually, and consequently, as we come together (which we must and are). The only way this might be possible is if we treat each other, and our work, seriously enough to take them into our lives and souls, if only for a moment. Thank you for sharing your tools, with us. Ahéhee'.