This month Brent Learned likely became the first Cheyenne Arapaho artist, if not the first-ever Native American artist, to paint live in Moscow’s Red Square. Sporting a t-shirt representing his tribe, he illustrated the famous silhouette of towering red cobblestone buildings. He painted his interpretation of Lenin's tomb and Saint Basil's Cathedral.
Learned is the visionary founder behind Native Pop and Native American Body of Art. The Oklahoma City-based artist traveled to Russia as part of the University of Oklahoma’s (OU) program, Peer to Peer (P2P) Two Sides of the Globe: Connecting Indigenous People. The goal of P2P is to strengthen awareness of the merits of Buryat and other indigenous communities in Siberia and American Indian communities in Oklahoma through direct, peer-to-peer exchanges of their experiences of preserving their cultural heritages. “This is an important relationship to establish as recent research indicates that 14% to 38% of American Indian ancestry may originate from Siberia,” P2P states.
Through P2P, Learned is collaborating with OU to create a children’s book about the Buryat people, “who are descendants of the Mongolian and Native Americans and have the same DNA,” Learned says. Learned arrived in Russia on August 6 and stayed nearly a month, traveling to Irkutsk, St. Petersburg and Moscow. Several Buryat people served as his tour guides, showing Learned where they lived and sharing their stories and customs. “They are so similar to the Native American Indian in their song, dance and art,” Learned says.
How would you describe Moscow's Red Square and its significance to you?
To be in Red Square is overwhelming. To grow up seeing pictures of it, seeing it in movies… but to actually be there, standing where so much history took place was inspirational. Considering Russia has only been open to the rest of the world since the ‘90s, I feel very privileged to have been in Red Square, being Native American and representing my tribe and my people and the heritage I belong to.
How did tourists and residents react to your live painting and your Cheyenne Arapaho shirt?
I did have quite a few people who asked if I was Native American, and once they found out I was, they wanted to take pictures with me, and they wanted to know more about my tribe. I told them I was from Oklahoma and gave them the history of my people.
Beyond design/architecture, what else did you enjoy about Russian culture—food, dance, art, etc.?
Where would I begin? The art is spectacular. The places that I've seen here in Russia are beautiful. The people are interesting. They want to know more about America; a lot of them have aspirations to come to the U.S.
But for me, one of my favorites was going to the museums and seeing the art of the past—paintings that a lot of people in the U.S. will probably never get to see, because Russian law prohibits export of any artwork. The only way to see it is to actually come over and see it in person.
What new perspectives do you feel you're heading back to Oklahoma City with thanks to your experiences in Russia?
It was a privilege to come to a country that has only been open to the rest of the world for less than 30 years. [The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought an end to harsh travel regulations.] It was a privilege to meet people that I would never have had the opportunity to meet otherwise, particularly the indigenous people here, and to hear their stories and see the dance, to experience and just share cultures. That's what we're all here for—for just for a little time in this world—to get the most out of it.