People Like Us

Can a garment deflect bullets? Symbolically, if the ammunition is the decimation of culture, of identity, a garment can provide the power of transformation, of confrontation, of action. It can serve as much as a badge of honor, as existence, as resistance.

Peaceful and spiritual resistance to the white-settler colonialism underway in the 19th century gave birth to the Ghost Dance practice by the Nevada Northern Paiute, and rapidly spread to other Native American cultures. The sacred dress would be painted or embellished with charged symbols of nature, providing a powerful unifying thread against the genocidal intruder (only the Lakota Sioux believed it would protect from bullets).

A peaceful mission does not diminish the power of confrontation, and Jeffrey Gibson, a member of the Mississippi Band of Chocotaw Indians and Cherokee, taps this context and thrusts it into contemporary conversations of the complicated layers of identity with his own versions of the ceremonial Ghost Shirts. To wit, he also resists limiting ties to Native American traditions, having noted they also nod to the dress of ancient Chinese warriors, among other customs.

Even without reading the beaded text brandished across the fronts, the massive, vibrant frocks suspended from wooden tipi poles overhead in one of the cavernous galleries at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York seemed to be a call to action. Ditto his colorful quilted banner above the ticket registration. Jeffrey is among the 75 artists included in the 2019 Whitney Biennial, and as politically and culturally engaged as many of his colleagues featured.

“People Like Us” materializes all the contradictions between the “us and them”: our popular culture’s fascination, appropriation, consumption, squandering, celebration and misunderstanding of Native American culture, with all its diversity and complexity. Likewise, it could be argued, the commercialism of last month’s gay pride celebrations. The specter of these concepts continue to haunt me weeks after seeing the show during our Saturday evening stop during NY Design Week.

Jeffrey’s iterations of the Ghost Shirts are not so much clothes as proposals, as he noted during his 2018 presentation of other incarnations of these garments at the 2018 Armory Show. From the rainbow colorways that signal the artist’s queer identity, to the names that, immediately, point to headlines as diverse as police shootings of young black men and the threat of ancestral lands under the current federal administration, at first look, these pieces only scratch the surface.

They prods us to think about the entire panoply of ideas and layers that embody each piece, like so many of the varicolored materials, both modern and ancient, that this prolific artist handcrafted in his Germantown, NY, studio.

The Whitney Biennial runs now through September 22, 2019.