Think about a famous piece of art. Where did it come from? Many well-known works of art were made in Spain, France, or Italy. Of course, there are great American artists too. But what about Native American art? Chances are, you likely haven’t seen much. Artist Jeffrey Gibson knows about that. He says there is a “lack of ” of Native American art in major art shows.
Gibson’s parents are from different Native American tribes. His father came from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. “My mother is Cherokee — from Oklahoma,” Gibson explained. “I’ve always known who I am,” he said. “But I wouldn’t necessarily see that combination of cultures represented in popular culture.” Gibson called it “problematic that we don’t exist in popular culture.”
Art can teach about Native American histories. That includes the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. Those Native American people have an ancient past. Their built giant mounds from the Earth many years before Christopher Columbus sailed to North America. Some of those earthworks still stand today. For example, Nanih Waiya rises 25 feet (7 m) high in Mississippi.
Gibson made a giant mound as well. His plywood pyramid stands 21 feet (6 m) tall. It has posters and LED lights. People can climb on top or explore inside. In 2020, Indigenous artists even performed on the artwork in New York City. Words cover the sides of the sculpture. One side says: “RESPECT INDIGENOUS LAND.”
“All land is indigenous to somebody,” explained Gibson. He doesn’t just mean natives to North America. “There are Indigenous people all around the world,” he explained. To Gibson, respecting the land means taking care of it — the way Indigenous people have. Gibson wants people to be more responsible with Earth’s resources. Added the artist: “We’re all on the same planet.”
Gibson makes more than mounds. He and his team create paintings, sculptures, videos, and performances. “Some of the pieces are wearable, like quilts,” said Gibson. “The paintings even have sometimes beadwork in them,” he added. Yet Gibson’s mixed-media work has a style. “I use a lot of color,” said Gibson. “I use a lot of patterns.” Many of the artist’s pieces include words. “Even the text sometimes is in the pattern,” Gibson told News-O-Matic.
One of Gibson’s pieces is made from a skinning board. Native Americans have used that tool to dry fur and animal skins. The artist spelled out three words from glass beads. It says: “LAND SPIRIT POWER.”
Gibson turned 50 years old in 2022. He has worked for decades to create change through art. It hasn’t been easy. “Real change takes a really long time,” he admitted. “It’s a lot of work.”
With a Choctaw and Cherokee background, Gibson uses art to teach about his culture. But he believes anyone can connect from other cultures. As he explained: “I hope my work creates a space for other people to acknowledge their own different threads that make them up.”
Updated October 31, 2022, 5:02 P.M. (ET)
By Russell Kahn (Russ)