‘Jeffrey Gibson: The Body Electric’ features art forged from a ‘playful place’
Jeffrey Gibson’s work swirls with explosions of color, pattern, geometry and collage.
Acclaimed Mississippi Band of Choctaw/Cherokee artist presents his work in “Jeffrey Gibson: The Body Electric” at SITE Santa Fe through September 11 as part of an in-depth investigation. The exhibition reveals paintings, sculptures, a series of films, a live performance and a new mural illuminating the entrance hall and the main galleries of the building.
The work reflects Gibson’s identification as an outsider through a celebration of nonconformity incorporating his Native American identity, as well as his experiences in North Carolina, Korea, Germany, and Chicago.
Expecting a largely Indigenous influence, viewers often seem taken aback by the inclusion of such diverse backgrounds in her work.
His father was a civil engineer whose government career took him around the world.
“We moved around a lot,” Gibson said in a phone interview in the Hudson River Valley in upstate New York. “When he came back (from a trip), he brought me something related to art.”
Family members sewed and worked beadwork, traditions that regularly surfaced in the artist’s work.
Gibson’s college divisions “They Play Endlessly,” 2021, echo quilt squares.
“The phrase is something I used in a play in 2013,” Gibson said. “I grew up with an awareness of traumatic Aboriginal history. But I grew up in a family of love, music, listening to pop music in a van.
In Chicago, Gibson worked at the Field Museum, helping tribal delegations sort through collections under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. It was there that he discovered the flourishing of Aboriginal motifs in the museum’s archives.
“I spent a lot of time in collections,” he said. “I didn’t want to copy anything that was in that museum because those models belonged to those people.”
He also counts geometry, Op art, design, fashion and psychedelia as influences, as well as punk rock and house music.
“They come from a very playful place,” he said. “It’s fun, but as an Indian, I want to feel empowered to create my own designs. When I’m in the studio, I try to operate and work in a game state.”
The multimedia collage “Pahl Lee”, 2021, evolved from Gibson’s reaction to paintings of 19th century Native Americans by Elbridge Ayer Burbank.
“While I was working with them, they made me very sad, very angry,” he said. “We don’t learn anything about them. These people were oppressed. They had been moved and told what to wear. I decided to use them almost as a brand.
Gibson crowned a commercially produced handbag hand-beaded by a native atop the piece.
“It’s not so much about Pahl Lee as it’s about aboriginal women,” he says. “The handbag is so cute.”
He took a similar approach to the Burbank portrait of Chief Black Coyote, adding beads, a vintage buckle and pin, and a belt to the collage.
A series of beaded birds are from the tribes of “fantasies” (pins and novelties) made as tourist souvenirs at Niagara Falls.
“I first saw them in the ’90s and they didn’t reflect a tribal aesthetic,” Gibson said.
The artist began his college education at the University of Maryland, but it only lasted a year.
“I was asked not to go back there,” he said. “I didn’t go to class; I was not a good student. I went on a trip; I followed the Grateful Dead.
He tried community college and was later accepted to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and then to the Royal College of Art in London. His Mississippi-based tribe funded his room, board, and overseas tuition.
People sometimes assume that he had a traditional native upbringing, but both of his grandfathers were Baptist ministers.
“My parents were both Southern Baptists,” he said. “There have certainly been divisions in the family. Some members still practiced Sun Dances. My parents never pushed me back and forth. It was kind of a weird mix. I’ve always tried to be really honest about the percentage of those experiences that built me. I’m interested in how those things intersect with my being Aboriginal.