Jeffrey Gibson: The Body Electric

Published May 20th 2023
By Tamara Smithers

Fig.1: The Land is Speaking|Are You Listening (2022). Image courtesy of the Frist Art Museum. Photo: John Schweikert.

Color. Pattern. Repetition. First, the visitor likely spotted the bright colors, mostly primaries and secondaries. Then their eyes danced upon intricate geometric designs that slowly emerged everywhere on almost everything. Various layers repeated and interlaced within individual compositions and amongst the different works, whether shapes and lines on surfaces or recurrent video loops. The visually-rich, multi-media exhibition “Jeffry Gibson: The Body Electric” at the Frist Art Museum from February 3 through April 23, 2023 organized by SITE Santa Fe showcased Gibson’s ability to navigate multiple dialogues through paintings, three-dimensional works, video, and installation. His voice as a Queer artist of Choctaw and Cherokee heritage was celebrated through beadwork and colorful geometric designs, drawing on historical, Indigenous cultural material as well as 80s and 90s pop culture and club scene. Several recurring themes such as water, land, healing, and gender fluidity are interwoven throughout the artworks displayed and the performances screened in the galleries.

The monumental mural The Land is Speaking|Are You Listening (2022) greeted guests with an abstracted landscape composed of horizontal bands of rainbow-like colors stretching from floor to ceiling (Figure 1). It immediately prompted further consideration of the meaning, addressing the viewer directly. The inscription, stating the artwork’s title, recalled vibrant geometric Choctaw bead applique and silk fabric ribbon work. This was one of many of Gibson’s works at the Frist that subtly drew upon traditional designs and motifs inspired from nature, such as the diamond shape. Gibson acknowledges the impact that large-scale murals can have on viewers and speaks about their historical relevance, notably ones painted by Indigenous artists in residential schools, many of which are now in ruin.[i] With this in mind, in a bold celebration, Gibson resurrects the personal and cultural importance of the mural as an artform.

Other works commented upon aspects of Indigenous visual culture and upon imposed cultural shifts. Historically, the Choctaw and Cherokee, among other Indigenous peoples, used shells to adorn objects and ceremonial regalia. During the late nineteenth-century, when Native Americans were forcibly placed on reservations and unable to practice their customary subsistence-way of living, they resourcefully traded goods for glass beads. Several sculptures in this room, and other works in the galleries, highlight glass beads such as My Joy My Joy My Joy (2021) (Figure 2). This work, an abstracted bird figure, is composed of a mix of traditional materials such as white abalone shell as well as acrylic felt and artificial sinew, as opposed to processed animal hide and muscle tendon, reiterating the delicacy and brevity of life as well as the period when modifications were necessary due to lack of access to traditionally harvested supplies. Gibson is drawn to the figurative concept of the “in between,” such as that represented by this type of object referred to as “whimsies,” tchotchkes made for the tourist market during this imposed transitional period by the Haudenosaunee and other peoples.[ii] My Joy, in particular, features pyrite, known as Fool’s Gold, perhaps a nod to the fervent quest to monopolize, and later abuse, the natural resources of the Americas by Europeans.

Fig.2: My Joy My Joy My Joy (2021). Photo: Tamara Smithers.

Echoes of this dialogue commenting upon environmental and social issues surface in other works by Gibson. For example, themes of land and water surface in the performance video To Feel Myself Beloves on Earth (2020), which juxtaposes a dancer in a natural setting with the cityscape of New York across the inlet. Gibson’s activist motivations are more obviously stated in wearable works such as Tribes File Suit to Protect Bears Ears (2018), which refers to the fight to defend previously protected sacred ancestral lands of several first nations in Utah that was significantly reduced in size during the Trump administration (Figure 3). Gibson shouts out to Indigenous-led, grass-roots efforts such as the “Water is Life” and “Land Back” movements that call for not only awareness about such issues but also action regarding the misuse of land and its vital resources as well as mistreatment of the communities connected to that land, as seen at Standing Rock Reservation on the border of South and North Dakota. The digital silkscreen collages Future is Present (2019) and I am a Rainbow (2019), for example, speak to the urgency of the matter and remind us that our world, including our place in it, is ephemeral.

Fig3: Installation view of Tribes File Suit to Protect Bears Ears (2018) in the center. Image courtesy of the Frist Art Museum. Photo: John Schweikert.

Fig4: Detail of She Never Dances Alone (2021). Photo: Tamara Smithers.

Much of his work simultaneously comments upon post-colonial adaptation and ways of life gone forever, and resilience and revival today in Indigenous communities. The two-dimensional work She Never Dances Alone (2021) includes 8-point star patterns, such as the ones that were historically painted on large game hides made into garments or domiciles and are still used today as a primary pattern design in quilt making (Figure 4). Through quilting, women who traditionally made these objects adorned with geometrical designs, such as many Plains Indian groups, adapted. Fittingly, the design often symbolized life. Upon an even closer look, this artwork whispers through repeated text “Respect Indigenous Land.” Gibson’s interest in quilt design is also evident in Quilt Block Paintings (2021). With consideration of intentional attempts to eradicate Indigenous ways of life, Gibson’s creations importantly call for healing: healing of the earth, healing of community, and healing of the self. One of the main expressions of pan-Native American healing is through sacred drumming and drum circle ceremonies at powwows, and the act of drumming is featured in the video-installation Like a Hammer (2016) and To Feel Myself Beloved on the Earth (2020). In the latter, the style and function of text across the face of the stretched hides on plastic buckets mirror that in other works, stating clauses such as “Time to Heal,” “Time for Change,” and “To Be Free” in the shape of 8-point stars as if to brighten and guide the way (Figures 5 and 6).

Fig5: Installation view of To Feel Myself Beloved on the Earth (2020). Image courtesy of the Frist Art Museum. Photo: John Schweikert.

Fig6: Detail of To Feel Myself Beloved on the Earth (2020). Photo: Tamara Smithers.

The nine-channel looping video She Never Dances Alone (2019) (Figure 7) reiterates these points and implies the dancer is never alone, but always connected. The main character wears a traditional jingle dress, which today is a contemporary women’s powwow dance regalia that originally derived from a nineteenth-century healing ceremony performed by an Objiwa medicine man. Traditionally, hundreds of cones fashioned from chewing tobacco tins would be sown onto the garment whereby the movement and sounds activated through dance evoked the power of healing. The featured dancer, Eastern Shoshone/ Northern Arapaho performer Sarah Ortegon, dons full powwow regalia from head to toe from a feathered headdress to buckskin beaded moccasins. Her images appear in various shots from wide to close up, single and multiple, and interspersed with vibrant designs that flash to the beat of Electronic Dance Music (EDM), The Halluci Nation song entitled “Sister.” Like aspects of the dress, the dancer’s braided, embellished hair sways with the rhythm.

Fig7: Installation view of She Never Dances Alone (2019). Image courtesy of the Frist Art Museum.

Today, in general, long braids celebrate the perseverance and preservation of Indigenous identity of first nations. Importantly, they are a non-gendered bodily expression. Queer and non-binary identity is a core part of Gibson’s exploration of body adornment. For example, in the video Like a Hammer (2016), the artist acts as the anonymous performer dressed in fringed, non-gendered attire covered in jingle cones. Gibson repeatedly bangs a hammer over and over, which serves as a protest anthem and symbolizes the breaking down of forced systems put into place by settler-colonizer.[iii] Similarly, in the three-dimensional piece Large Figures (2022) (Figure 8), it rejects the stationary Western gender binary, reconfirming the prevalence of two-spirit or third-gender individuals honored in many Native American cultures that was one of many things such as the practice of song, dance, language, body art, and large-scale material culture, that were outlawed on government-run reservations.

Fig8: Installation view of Large Figures (2022) in the foreground with Sweet Bitter Love Series (2020) in the background on the left. Image courtesy of the Frist Art Museum. Photo: John Schweikert.

The video A Warm Darkness (2022) brings together the aforementioned themes of the importance of place, the celebration of life, and the restorative abilities of performance: for example, young performers circle Gibson’s large, terraced pyramid, Because Once you Enter my House it Becomes Our House (2020), while wearing t-shirts drawing attention to the concept that water is life. Past and present is evoked. The lone, central performer, Queer artist Mx. Oops, atop the structure is dressed in drag with a pink wig and glittery lips. A secondary performer wears a headdress and gorget breastplate, further referencing the pre-contact era of mound-building Mississippian chiefdoms that highlights Gibson’s ancestral heritage and indicates a time of unsuppressed cultural and religious freedom before Western objectification and Otherness. Works such as Sweet Bitter Love Series (2020) (Figure 8) comment on the post-colonial period when native-made objects, such as beaded purses, were fervently collected and displayed as ethnographic samples because Westerners believed Native Americans were extinct or were soon to be extinct. Through this work and others such as the “Indigenized” beaded punching bag War is Not the Answer Feel Something Real (2020) (Figure 9), the “act aims to repair the ruptures caused by colonialism and places agency back into Indigenous hands.”[iv] Gibson’s resounding statement in this work, and in this exhibition as a whole, is that despite political and social adversity, historical and present, he (and we) are thriving and there is no time like now to voice this.

Fig9: Installation of War is Not the Answer Feel Something Real (2020). Photo: Tamara Smithers.

Artist Bio:

Jeffrey Gibson is a Queer multimedia artist enrolled in the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and of Cherokee decent who received his MFA from the Royal College of Art. His accolades include a 2012 TED (conference) Fellowship and a 2019 MacArthur Fellowship. His work has been screened and displayed across the US and internationally and is in collections such as the Christal Bridges Museum, the Denver Art Museum, the Museum of Fine Art Boston, and the Whitney Museum of Art.

Author Bio:

Tamara Smithers received her PhD from Temple University and is Professor of Art History at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, TN where she teaches a course on Native American visual culture. As a scholar of the early modern period in Italy, her publications range from an academic monograph entitled The Cults of Michelangelo and Raphael: Artistic Sainthood and Memorials as a Second Life to a student-friendly, open-resource essay “Who Was Michelangelo?

[i] Laura Hutson Hunter, “Electric Boogaloo” Nashville Scene. vol. 41, no. 51 (January 26–February 1, 2023), 12.

[ii] “Jeffry Gibson: The Body Electric, February 3–April 23, 2023” Frist Art Museum Bulletin, 30, Issue 1 (January 1, 2023), 6.

[iii] “Jeffry Gibson: The Body Electric,” SITE Santa Fe/ Frist Art Museum exhibition pamphlet.

[iv] “The Body Electric,” Bulletin, 4.

I would like to thanks McLean Fahnestock for reading and commenting upon a draft of this review.