Bunky Echo-Hawk takes the stage with live painting

By
Friday, October 5, 2007

The Native American Heritage Series kicked off Tuesday evening in List Art Center 120 with a series of speakers and the creation of a “live painting” by artist Bunky Echo-Hawk.

The event, “Artistic Expression: Modern Perspectives on a Modern People,” opened with a series of speeches from members of the organization Native Americans at Brown, including an introduction from Mikel Brown ’08 and Delphina Thomas ’08, Native American Series programmers for the Third World Center.

Thomas and Loyola Rankin ’11 then each spoke briefly about their experiences with NAB. Rankin described her initial reservations about coming to Brown and the comfort and security she has found through NAB in only the first weeks of her freshman year. Thomas reflected on the first heritage series event she attended as a freshman and recalled watching the senior speakers on that occasion with admiration. “We were all looking for that sense of community – and we found it,” she said. “NAB is not only a community – they’re my family.”

Elizabeth Hoover MA’03 GS, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology, introduced Echo-Hawk, a 32-year-old Colorado-based visual artist and poet who graduated from the Institute of American Indian Arts.

Echo-Hawk, a member of the Yakama and Pawnee tribes, expressed his appreciation for the turnout of both Native American and non-Native students and community members. He stressed the significance of keeping Native American cultures alive and sharing them with the world, showing the audience his page on MySpace.com – through which, he said, he conducts 80 percent of his business as an artist.

“In my culture, in my language, there’s no word for artist, there’s no word for religion – it’s a way of life,” he said.

He also spoke about NVision, a non-profit group he co-founded in 2006 that conducts Native American youth outreach through multimedia arts. “We want to empower Indian kids,” he said of NVision, for which he currently serves as executive director.

Echo-Hawk also mentioned some of the issues facing Native Americans today, including high suicide rates, high military enlistment and low college enrollment, noting those are an “indication we’re struggling as a people.”

In the second portion of the evening, Echo-Hawk invited audience members to suggest themes to be incorporated into his spontaneously-created painting. “I never know what I’m going to paint,” he said.

He invited the audience to call out suggestions to be written down and put in one of two hats – one for issues facing Native Americans and the other for words that described modern mainstream America. The former received suggestions ranging from “domestic violence” and “identity” to “mascots” and “Disney’s Pocahontas.” Into the second hat went “fast food,” “immigration” and “Britney Spears,” as well as “democracy” and “diversity.”

Once all the terms were collected, Echo-Hawk announced, “I’m going to get an Indian Vanna White to come up and draw a word from each hat.” The two terms chosen were “overindulgence” and “Christianization of indigenous people.”

As Echo-Hawk went to work sketching out a figure on the blank canvas while hip hop blared from his laptop, students were encouraged to take the stage and read pre-selected quotes by poet John Trudell.

Thomas then encouraged students to spontaneously perform their own spoken word poetry. When there were no takers, audience members were asked to shout out questions for Echo-Hawk as he worked on his painting.

In response to various questions, Echo-Hawk candidly discussed everything from his first painting – a portrait of an ancestor that he painted onto a leather jacket – to what initially drew him to art.

Echo-Hawk presented a slide show of his paintings – bright, colorful images which juxtapose mainstream historical or mass media images with traditional Native American dress or stereotypes. His past works include everything from a portrayal of General Custer as Darth Vader and Shrek in Native American garb to “Small Pox Full Circle,” which depicts a figure in a Native American headdress and gas mask injecting a syringe into a magenta-skinned President Bush. Although his works range from playful to biting critique, Echo-Hawk insisted that “(I) don’t believe in being real avant-garde with art.”

Echo-Hawk said he chooses his colors based on the traditional color theory of his tribe, in which each color has a symbolic meaning. Black represents death, a way of life that has passed, whereas yellow represents birth, he said, adding that applying this theory to his paintings tends to work out aesthetically. “The sky is blue, but the people are a little tweaked,” he said.

The event ultimately ended about 40 minutes past its projected running time of an hour and half. The painting that resulted from Echo-Hawk’s labor featured a dominant orange-skinned figure dressed as a priest and holding a Bible, pointing forcefully at the viewer in a pose reminiscent of the “Uncle Sam Wants You” U.S. Army recruitment poster. The priest’s hat was decorated with an American flag pattern, and his shirt had the beginnings of a word started with “Mc” as in “McDonald’s.” Echo-Hawk asked the audience for suggestions as to what the Mc-word should be, garnering suggestions such as “McSalvation” and “McChrist”, until one word finally captured popular opinion – “McBelieve.”