Utah Gallery Cuts Ties With Western Artist Over Use Of Indigenous Icons

A prominent Salt Lake City art gallery has severed ties with a famous Western painter, after complaints from Indigenous activists that the painter’s work appropriated and often abused Native American iconography.

Activists, however, question why the gallery didn’t act sooner – and it was only after hearing their criticisms that the artists represented by the gallery acted.

What Denae Shanidiin and Kalama Ku’ikahi Tong Saw When They Passed Through Salt Lake City Modern Western Fine Artat 412 S. 700 West, was triggering and insensitive to Indigenous peoples, they said.

One of the works with the title “Oh my God”, depicts a white woman and an aboriginal woman standing side by side as military planes drop bombs over Monument Valley. In the all caps bubble, the white woman asks the indigenous woman, “OH MY GOD!! WAS THIS YOUR VILLAGE? The characters seem to be taken not so much from reality as from an old Hollywood movie, with stereotypical costumes.

Another work showed a naked Aboriginal woman, wearing a headdress, in a canoe. Yet another depicted spiritual deities, such as the Ahola Kachina, which Shanidiin and Tong viewed as cultural appropriation and abuse.

The works in question were created by Billy Schencka pop artist dubbed “the Warhol of the West” by the Southern Utah Museum of Art, who set up an exhibition from his western-themed work with Andy Warhol earlier this year. According to Castle Fine Art, Schenck’s art fuses “Navajo culture, modern cowgirls, and wry humor.”

Shanidiin, a Salt Lake City artist who is Dine and Korean, and Tong, who is from the island of Hawaii, argue that Schenck’s work is dehumanizing, sexually abusive, stereotypical and culturally appropriation – taking advantage of indigenous cultures. of the southwest, especially the Diné or Navajo culture.

The sexual aspects of Schenck’s work, Shanidiin said, are particularly alarming, given recent attention to the plight of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIW). Shanidiin and Tong hosted events to mark MMIW Day, May 5, in Salt Lake City, raising awareness that Utah is one of the top 10 states in the nation for missing and killed Indigenous women and girls – with higher rates than other racial groups.

Modern West represents various Indigenous artists, including Diné artists Shonto Begay — whose work is featured in an online exhibition on the gallery’s website until May 31 — as well as Sheldon Harvey and Patrick Dean Hubbellwho are from the Navajo Nation.

“Every Aboriginal artist in this

is a victim of this colonization and genocide” depicted in Schenck’s work, Shanidiin said. “They are inherently in danger being in this gallery, juxtaposing their sacred work and livelihood alongside that of Billy Schenck.”

Diane Stewart, owner of Modern West and a key figure in the Salt Lake City art community, has confirmed that the gallery has ended its ties with Schenck.

In an emailed statement to the Salt Lake Tribune, Stewart said the gallery does not support the exploitation or victimization of Indigenous people, only after public comments surfaced about Schenck.

An article from April 29 on the gallery’s website, signed by Stewart and Shalee Cooper Gallery Directoracknowledged that “the lack of curation with Billy’s last show was a huge mistake on our part. Correct curation would certainly have given us the information needed to see how the work falls short of our community standards, nor from the gallery.

The message states that the gallery will “pause our performance of Billy Schenck. We are taking this hiatus from all his work to understand the depth and breadth of the effect his images have on our community.

In his statement to The Tribune, Stewart said, “We hope discussions around this experience will inform and raise awareness about the changes needed for more sensitive and equitable treatment of Indigenous populations. These are very important and important issues that cannot be solved by the gallery, or even the art world alone, but we hope we can do our part to rebuild trust with a new, more informed perspective.

Schenck, who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, did not respond to attempts by The Tribune to contact him. In a recent painting, Schenck depicted a woman, terrified with hands holding a rope behind her and speaking into a telephone: “Oh, Jesus! The woke police are here!

The April 29 post also drew comments from other artists. For instance, Laura Sharp Wilsonwho identifies as white and recently completed a residency at Modern West, said she has thought about her involvement with the gallery — and learning about cultural sensitivities in the art world.

“I have a big revelation that white people need to do a lot more work and native people, BIPOC people shouldn’t have to do all the work,” Wilson told The Tribune. “It also made me realize that white people have learned to be blind to this stuff, and that’s why we still talk about it.”

Sarah Hollenberg, who teaches art history at the University of Utah, said part of his job is to teach students to “recognize and begin to unravel the horrible mess of stereotypes, racism and of misogyny embedded in their historical and contemporary visual culture”. She added that Modern West’s choice to represent Schenck “makes my job more difficult. He tells budding artists, art historians, educators and future leaders that when it comes to representation, it’s okay to look no further than the same old colonial narratives.

Before Modern West cut ties with Schenck, Shanidiin questioned the gallery’s rhetoric protecting the artist — and noted that it needed public comment from Salt Lake City’s art community to call out the content of the work. of Schenck.

Shanidiin is an artist herself – one who chooses not to be represented by a major gallery – and her inspiration comes, she says, from her people and the landscape. She contrasted this with Schenck’s work, which she called “threatening and controlling narratives about Indigenous land, body, identity, and art.”

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