Thursday, March 12, 2009

Three comics-related shows in DC. 2. Comic Art Indigène.

The second show was actually and narrowly related to comics. It is held at the National Museum of the American Indian, also a part of the Smithonian Institute, although it was organised first at the New Mexico Museum of Indian Art & Culture.
For a brief, official presentation, you can check here.
I have to start by saying that I totally disagree with the first sentence of the curatorial statement. Comics are not "poorly understood, underanalyzed, and under-utilized". There has been, in the United States alone, dozens of academic books on comics being published every year. There are conferences, meetings, forums and venues for discussion, and newer, perhaps better ways to produce, present and divulgate comics.
They're also not disposable... tell that to the collectors, buyers of graphic novels, and contemporary anthologies!
Anyhoo, the exhibition was a mish-mash of Native Americans' arts and crafts, such as cave painting, ceramic bowls and embroideries, compared to contemporary North American mainstream comics... At the entrance we see a painting of a warrior (?) with a shield whose colour scheme reminds one of Captain America's; and to drive that point home, there's a pic of Steve Rogers in his superheroic garments for comparison... Other works include contemporary crafts that use comics as a model for figuration, comics that have Indians as characters (from "bad, savage redskins" promptly confronted by the good ol' cavalry, to "Indian mutants"), or downright comics made by ethnic Indian peoples (can I say this? I am sorry if I'm being politically incorrect, I am not familiar with the terms as informed American citizens). One example is this image, that was used for the flyer... We'll all recognize (and a copy is included) John Buscema's scheme of the cover for The Avengers # 57. Sure, this version presents a very interesting riff using the Pueblo's own hero Po'pay fighting the Spanish, but apart from being a pretty nice appropriation, bringing about many interesting readings of a political nature - and even, perhaps, of rewriting and empowering History - does this make good comic art?
One of the most, no, the best piece of the exhibition, for me, was Cochiti Pueblo artist Martha Arquero's clay figurine of a Pueblo version of Spiderman. It is not only well-made, strong rewriting, a nice crossing of Peter Parker's known heroic alter ego and certain Pueblo tales (the old Spider Woman) but also damn cute. I actually think that this is the best meeting of two seemingly different and perhaps even strangely at odds modes of expression... One being a very traditional creation, steeped in uniqueness, and the other not-less unique but quite diluted as a commodity. To a certain extent, it reminded me of the comicbook - even more childish than usual - Spider-Man Fairy Tales. Many questions arise with this show, surely.
The point that "comics", as modernly understood, existed since time began (or at least, in the American continent, since rock drawings), goes back to a vexing question of the definition and historicity of comics. This has been discussed over and over again, and the fact that this exhibition takes no account of these things does not make it a good service.
I know that the very fact I am asking this question begs other questions and, at the end of the day, it is not a very intelligent way to discuss such exhibition... But frankly, I wanted to see strong, new work, and I fail to see and understand its power. Perhaps I needed to read more about it, to become more informed of the context and the quality of resistance that these works surely present.
Sure, it tackles the stereotyping that exuded from many American comics throughout its existence as a popular genre, and it is a nice showcase of a handful of Native American artists using comics as their weapon of choice (for it is, indeed, a weapon). Identity is a major issue, and taking in account that most superhero (a genre that seems very present in this show) is all about alter egos, secret identities and masks, it's very telling thaat most Native American characters, even when superheroic, show their own faces.
According to Mike Rhode's blog post, the curator, Antonio Chavarria, "was a comics fan before becoming a Curator of Ethnology". However, although it's a nice way to bring these two worlds together, they do not seem to coalesce into a single, unified field.
Oh, well, still have this really cute clay Spidey...

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