In every single conversation I have with a Native American artist – without exception – one point is always made on their part: Native American people and culture are contemporary. If you take nothing else from my writing on Indigenous art, know this: Native American people and culture are contemporary.
The dominant white culture may not see them, may not recognize them, may not acknowledge them, but Indigenous people are here – despite the historic and ongoing efforts of that culture to eliminate them.
Two minutes after picking up the phone to talk with Navajo/Creek/Yuchi/Seminole artist Steven Grounds, we were deep into a conversation about Indigenous representation.
“Most of the time whenever people think about (Native American people), they’re thinking about a person frozen in time, like in an old black and white photo or a painting that depicts this certain type of look,” Grounds told me, reiterating the words of the other Indigenous artists of all tribes I’ve talked to over the years.
Fighting this perception is the reason why he focuses on portraiture with his artmaking. Grounds puts a contemporary spin the seemingly outdated genre through “a reinterpretation… in a more modern aesthetic.”
Grounds’ portraits aren’t relics, they’re fresh interpretations of Native faces.
If the Indigenous faces from Grounds’ artworks aren’t familiar to you, they should be, but that’s likely not your fault. As fellow Native American artist Eric Tippeconnic told me, “the majority of Americans who are not Native never have to interact with Native people over the course of their whole lifetime if they choose not to.”
Mass media portrayals of Native people in American remain scant. Who’s the Indigenous movie star? National news anchor? Reality show spectacle? Celebrity athlete?
Deb Haaland (Pueblo of Laguna) being named Interior Secretary last year was a major breakthrough for Native people everywhere for this reason – she broke through the wall separating Indigenous people from representation in the federal government at the cabinet level.
Don’t confuse the lack of mainstream Native representation with a lack of Native people worthy of mainstream representation. To help you get started, or further your efforts to engage with Native people and issues through the media, the Lakota Law Project has compiled a guide to decolonize your media.
As a further example, last month I profiled Shaun Beyale, a Navajo graphic artist who is the lead designer for an upcoming Marvel Comic starring an Indigenous superhero.
Excluded from mainstream media, social media offers Native Americans a rich platform to share their perspectives, history and artwork. I have personally learned a great deal about Indigenous people, culture and the contemporary concerns they’re passionate about by following Indigenous run Twitter and Instagram accounts.
Start with these leading Indigenous artists, advocates, thinkers and organizations:
@stevenag77 (Steven Grounds)
Steven Grounds Street Art
In the studio, Grounds focuses on portraiture. His portraits of Native Americans can be purchased online through WYLD Gallery. Outside the studio – and where his greatest acclaim has come – he can be found spray painting murals.
Between his birth in Pawnee, Oklahoma in 1977 and the time he spent living in El Reno, Oklahoma where he developed his talent as a muralist, Grounds spent eight years in Phoenix. It was there where he was introduced to graffiti art, street art and spray painting murals on public buildings.
“What drew me to it was it was the purest art form – it’s the only type of art that is free. It can’t be owned if it’s in a public space,” Grounds said. “It was like punk rock in the sense that it was self-expression that couldn’t be contained. It couldn’t be sanctioned, it couldn’t be co-opted. It was something that you could participate in and it didn’t require anything, it was about your own expression.”
Grounds found himself particularly drawn to the early generation of graffiti writers in New York City from the late 1970s and early 80s who founded the movement. This was the generation of artists who took street art and graffiti from being criminalized as vandalism to purchased as fine art. The era insightfully captured by the documentary “Style Wars.”
“The street artists and the graffiti writers, all those guys, I really idolized that, I loved that concept, I took that and I ran with that when it came to my artwork,” Grounds, who uses the pseudonym Native Evolution for his street art, said.
Has he ever.
A mural project in the Bricktown area of downtown Oklahoma City is a particularly prominent example of his work.
“Mostly, the Native American art scene is in the gallery world,” Grounds said. “There are some Native street artists, but when I started, I realized it would be really something to paint a large portrait – a hundred foot mural or something like that – in that street art style”
He did that too.
While living in El Reno, Grounds came across the abandoned Concho Indian Boarding School in next door Concho, OK. He thought this presented the perfect opportunity to experiment with scale.
Grounds asked the local Cheyenne and Arapaho leadership if he could practice on the building and they were open to it. Starting in 2014, tinkering at first, learning as he went, the project evolved into something of an opus.
“Once I started figuring out how to take something smaller like a drawing or a painting and transition that to a wall – I learned on my own – it clicked,” Grounds said. “I was able to do it fairly quickly. I just was able to intrinsically do it somehow.”
The Concho Indian Boarding School, a site of historic trauma like all of the Indian Boarding Schools, remains abandoned, but its façade is now covered with portraits of Cheyenne and Arapaho figures, honoring the tribes. Hope exists that the building, now a source of community pride, can be renovated and restored to support Native culture instead of its previous iteration as an institution designed to destroy it.