Native American Artist Represents Her Community Through Art

Photo by Alex Jacobs / Luanne Redeye is seen in School of Advanced Research studio in front of a self-portrait she worked on of herself and her son, Elliot.

Alex Jacobs

Realist Native American artist reveals truths during SAR Residency

Representing Native people from a Native perspective is what is important to Native American artist Luanne Redeye. She paints people she knows in spaces that are comfortable to them. She shows them exactly as they are—what they are doing, what they are wearing, and what surrounds them in their home. She feels she is representing the Native community and what makes, builds and describes the community. The community represented is usually her family and friends on the Allegany Seneca Indian Reservation in Western New York. She is a Seneca Nation and Hawk clan member.

“I incorporate design work associated with my specific nation—as abstract paintings. I want to show a sense of the complexity of Native American iconography that is lost in the representations in popular culture. I borrow from Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) beadwork in my paintings to show a density of line, texture and depth,” said Redeye in a statement announcing her residency. “Instead of treating the designs as ‘traditional’ I have intentionally morphed the designs to bring them into a modern context, showing the viewer that their meanings are vital, important, always changing and active. The symbols should not be fixed in time or in the past, but always evolving.”

The School for Advanced Research (SAR) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, offered a residency this May to Seneca painter and bead-worker Luanne Redeye, as the 2017 Barbara and Eric Dobkin Native Artist Fellow. Redeye is an accomplished figurative Native American artist who works primarily in oil and portraiture. She beads special frames with designs that relate to the subject of her oil paintings, which are done in the raised beadwork style common to the Iroquois communities of Western New York and usually contain a photo collage of family members. These visual elements combine to tell stories of the Allegany Seneca community she was raised in.

But Redeye had to move to New Mexico to find a creative and supportive network in which she could develop her meticulous and exacting techniques. Redeye earned a master’s degree at the University of New Mexico in 2011, and has lived in Albuquerque for nine years. She now teaches at Central New Mexico Community College. The residency in Santa Fe was a welcome relief from teaching and will her refresh her approach. She appreciates what the Southwest has to offer creative artists, but she resolves her homesickness with her art, which is all about her home community at Allegany.

While at SAR, the Native American artist worked on a series of oil paintings and corresponding beadwork frames. The paintings will represent family members, but the larger theme of the work will explore alcoholism, domestic violence and mental illness, but also more positive themes like caring, providing, protecting and teaching. These have all affected her family and her directly but also each generation since the start of colonialism.

The Kinzua Dam relocation and the forced removal still affects the community today. This was also made clear at the recent Standing Rock protests. Research has shown that historical trauma can be passed down generationally and perhaps even reside in DNA. “I’m hoping through this project I can further explore familial relationships and how the historical traumas can be broken,” Redeye said.

In her early work, she created a series of 12 x 12 “Abstracted Beadwork Designs” that blew up the scale and reconfigured Seneca beadwork designs. This led to discovery in her printmaking as she had been trying to combine the beadwork designs and painting. In printmaking she can underlay bold abstract designs and overlay equally bold portraits. In painting, she incorporates them in a delicate and unobtrusive manner that subtly reinforces her narrative. She won a prestigious SWAIA Fellowship in 2014, which led to a residency at the Santa Fe Art Institute, a booth at Indian Market and the next year a SWAIA award for printmaking.

Indian Market provided surprises as the audience tends to look for work that fits their own perceptions of contemporary Native art. This is usually deciphered as “Your work doesn’t look like Indian art.” Redeye explains that it’s Native art because she is a Native American artist and her subjects are Native.

“I depict the relationship between perception and experience of Native identity through genre scenes, designs, and portraits—not to prove authenticity but to disprove what others think is ‘authentic.’ The works are visual narratives of the people’s histories capturing what it means to be Indian today,” Redeye said.

It can be more confusing as a woman, because sometimes while in her booth with her husband, a viewer will first compliment her husband, assuming he is the artist. “I like to play with expectations of ‘Native-ness,” what we are supposed to look like—even down to skin tone—and challenge perception of who and what a Native person is. If a subject’s home does include cultural items, then I include them in the painting because it’s important to them and my people to hold on to,” she said.

It may not be readily apparent that there is a narrative behind her images, but they reveal a backstory that is hidden to most viewers, so she creates tension and leaves little clues or design elements that speak of greater truths. Genre painting is defined as scenes of everyday life and ordinary people at work, play or leisure. We see scenes by old masters like Leonardo DaVinci and Redeye is drawn to these technical aspects, but says her subjects are never staged and she is not a photo-realist.

When her son Elliot was born a year and a half ago, she started to become even more aware of toxins in paint, solvents, pigments and techniques. Her portrait “Becky” with transparent oil washes on wood is an example of a natural look that ties her technique and narrative together. Redeye said natural pigments dry faster and are less toxic, so she uses non-solvent mediums and natural oils like poppy and safflower, and experiments with oil-permeated paper for designing.

While at SAR she finished an autobiographical painting of herself and Elliot. “I chose to have collage images about Kinzua Dam, the community and family history underneath my skin and clothes, to symbolize how the teachings from my grandmother, and the influences of my other family are a part of me and I’m sharing them with Elliot,” she said.

Redeye has had success and recognition working and teaching in New Mexico, but her self-portrait titled “Ageswegaiyo” was recently purchased by the New York State Museum in Albany, so she is thinking of going home so her son can meet his family at Allegany.