Laughter and Resilience: Humor in Native American Art

Laughter and Resilience: Humor in Native American Art

By Dorene Red Cloud (Oglala Lakota), assistant curator of Native American art


Heidi Brandow, b.1981 (Diné/Kanaka Maoli), Cute Monster Series, 2015, mixed media, 10.25 inches x 24” inches
Image by Addison Doty, courtesy of the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian

 

In May, the Eiteljorg will premiere a travelling exhibition from the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe, New Mexico, called Laughter and Resilience: Humor in Native American Art. The curatorial staff leapt at the opportunity to bring this exhibit to the Eiteljorg because of its focus on humor, which is often at the heart of Native art. I have worked at the Eiteljorg for a little more than four years, and I have had the privilege to work with both the renowned biennial Eiteljorg Contemporary Art Fellowship and our annual Indian Market and Festival, two programs that sponsor and promote Native artists. Sometimes these artists’ works of art are serious, abstract and specific. An equally important thread woven into the work of our Native artist friends is their light-heartedness, amusing comedy and quick wit.

Laughter and Resilience approaches Native humor by arranging the exhibited works into the following categories: Tricksters, Satire and Parody, Cartoons and Cartoonists, and Whimsy. These categories help unpack the concept of Native humor to a new audience. We are grateful to the Wheelwright Museum for graciously allowing us to add related works from the Eiteljorg collection to the exhibit.

Humor is a complex expression. Some of us respond to the critical wit from satirical movies. Others enjoy reading a favorite comic strip, or adding playful elements to their day-to-day lives. (See Heidi Brandow’s Cute Monster for some true whimsy.)

When translating from different languages, cultural context can be absent or misinterpreted. For me, this is apparent in the word “trickster,” one of the categories highlighted in Laughter and Resilience. “Trickster” evokes thoughts of a mischievous, shadowy figure that manipulates innocents in a parable or cautionary tale. In many Native cultures, however, the Trickster is not fictional, and instead, multi-faceted. Trickster can be Creator, Hero, a Trouble Maker, or all three. Coyote, Rabbit, Fox and Raven are common.

Trickster figures into many Native American and First Nations (of Canada) stories that are still relevant (and humorous) today. Trickster can be fun, silly and self-deprecating and yet serious, clever is creating the world and teaching the people how to live, and in the next he is a prankster, warning us not to be too proud or vain or you might grow a second nose or something! Either way, Trickster is revered.

To laugh in the face of adversity requires strength of character. The past year seems to have tested everyone’s resiliency, and humorous expressions — from cat memes, to late-night comedians — helped many of us get through. For Native peoples, repeating a joke or lovingly making fun of each other has been a characteristic that empowers us to be resilient despite difficult histories, moments and situations.


Ricardo Caté, b. 1964 (Santo Domingo Pueblo)
Untitled (Santa Fe Coyote)
Acrylic on canvas, 18 inches x 22 inches
Image by Addison Doty, courtesy of the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian

Santo Domingo Pueblo contemporary cartoonist Ricardo Caté has wicked deadpan humor. His cartoon, Untitled (Santa Fe Coyote), features three coyotes in a desert scene: One coyote asks another about a third coyote that has a scarf tied around its neck and is howling towards a blue sky. The second coyote replies, “He’s from Santa Fe.” This trickster satirically comments on how a scarf is an iconic fashion statement among those from Santa Fe.

One way to poke fun at or satirize social behaviors and events is through parody. In this exhibit, you will see Hopi Koyola carvings from the Eiteljorg collections wearing silly outfits and making somewhat unsuitable gestures. To their community members, these Native American clowns are reminders of the types of inappropriate behavior to avoid, but communicated in a humorous way that makes their messages accessible.

When visiting Laughter and Resilience and participating in its programming, expect to gain an insight into the creative minds of several Native artists who incorporate humor into their paintings, prints, photographs, silverwork, claywork and cartoons. And most importantly, expect to laugh!


Fredrick Cruz, b. 1961 (Tohono O’odham)
Untitled (Dog with Hat), ca. 2009
White and green yucca, devil’s claw, and beargrass, 10.25 inches x 8.46 inches
Image by Addison Doty. Courtesy of the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian

 

LAUGHTER AND RESILIENCE: HUMOR IN NATIVE AMERICAN ART
MAY 22–AUG 8, 2021
Organized by the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and featuring additional artworks from the collections of the Eiteljorg Museum
#EJNativeHumor

SPONSORED BY CAPITAL GROUP

 

Visit www.eiteljorg.org/calendar for details of public programs about Laughter and Resilience, such as virtual talks and tours.

 

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the February 2021 issue of Storyteller magazine.

 

Read this article in the April/May 2021 issue of Native American Art magazine about the “Laughter and Resilience” exhibition:
Native American Art_Laughter and Resilience_April May 2021



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