In the current Denver Art Museum exhibition Eyes On: Julie Buffalohead on view until February 3, 2019, the museum websites describes her work in reference to her frequently anthropomorphized animals as representing a “whimsical childlike innocence,” however, the political satire that her work implies reaches far beyond the perspective of a child.
I was first introduced to the work of Buffalohead, the Minnesota artist and citizen of the Ponca Native American Tribe of Oklahoma, at the Institute of American Indian Arts gallery in Santa Fe in her 2015 exhibition The Truth About Stories: Julie Buffalohead. The contrast in how her work is framed between the DAM show and the IAIA presents a lesson in the dichotomous history of the America West. The IAIA exhibition asserted that Buffalohead seeks more than just a reincarnation of childhood innocence but through her imaginative hybrid human/ animal figures she emphasizes— a dark history of violence and a myriad of injustices— served to the tribal communities throughout the Americas.
The landscape that I currently reside in within the great American Western City of Denver, Colorado represents the history of an eager eye for gold as early settlers made the long journey westward lead by the promise of free land” and manifest destiny. Buffalohead references the loss of land and lives of her Tribal kinspeople through their revered animals, the Coyote and the Deer, through violent crimson blocks of colors pouring off the bed surrounding them in works like Straight Legs (2018). She also directly call the viewer’s attention to the recent political history of the Dakota Pipeline controversy impeding on the land of the Sioux tribe in works like White Buffalo Reborn (2018).
The Sioux tribe protests against the 1,200 mile pipeline that would stretch across their land began in 2014 but gained international recognition in 2016 for the harmful ecological and socio-environmental impact this oil producing structure would have on land still considered sacred ground for their ancestors. In January of 2017, two weeks after his inauguration, President Trump’s administration expedited the review of the easement of the Pipeline emphasizing his intent to spur infrastructure development and support the fossil fuel industry.
In her work White Buffalo Reborn (2018) Buffalohead features the notoriously trickster fox with guilty red hands holding a spray paint can next to his writings of “RESIST” and a white skull and crossbone-like pattern across the backs of a few stray buffaloes. The White Buffalo in Native American tribes such as the Lakota and the Sioux typically represents the story of the White Buffalo Women who taught the tribes the mysteries of the earth, making her one of the most sacred hybrid creatures in their folklore traditions. The death of this sacrosanct land is clear as the scene is juxtaposed with both the appearance of nature of the Western landscape with the blocks of blue, turquoise and brown next to echoes of the impeding urbanism in the graffiti painted across the backs of these sacred creatures.
The framing of Julie Buffalohead “Eyes On” exhibition at the DAM solely in context of a larger exhibition within the museum entitled “Stampede,” that looks at how animals are portrayed in art, creates a simplistic and frankly superficial understanding of a conceptually rich body of her work. Buffalohead derives her inventive narratives from a rich cultural heritage of Native American Ledger paintings that imbues her work with socio-political criticism through the lens of contemporary Pop Art. She questions our delicate ties to nature and how they represent a deeper obscured truth about the human need for the wisdom of the Animal world and how that has been masked from modern Americans in defense of progressive Capitalism.