Combining lines and shapes with distorted images of indigenous cultural past, the art of Joshua Garrett, Muscogee/Seminole, casts a spell over viewers. His work explores the intersection of themes like conflicted spirituality, cultural isolation, over consumption and being deaf.
Garrett primarily works with oil pastel over acrylic. “Sometimes I'll throw in some spray paint,” he said. Some of Garrett’s portraits of Natives play off the “dark and sad” images of American Indians by Edward Curtis. Curtis’ 2,000-plus staged photographs of First Nations peoples from 80 tribes portray Indians as a “vanishing race.” Many people argue that Curtis’ representations of indigenous culture as a vestige of the past have detrimentally impacted mainstream society's perception of native people.
It’s a busy weekend ahead for Garrett in Oklahoma City. He'll be representing his art at the Native Pop opening tonight at Paseo Plunge. Friday, July 7, marks the return of the Native Pop exhibit to Oklahoma City, to the same gallery where it debuted in July 2016. Since then, Native Pop has toured the country, most recently circulating in Minnesota. Among other cities, Native Pop hits Brooklyn and Chicago this fall.
Garrett’s art is also on display at DNA Galleries in Oklahoma City through Sunday, July 9. If you’re nearby, don’t miss the opportunity to check out his work at both venues. Follow his work on Instagram @deadfeather. The Native Pop show is part of Oklahoma City’s Paseo Arts District’s First Friday Gallery Art Walk. As Garrett posted on Instagram: “Looking for something to do tonight? There's ALL KINDS of art happening. Check out my exhibit at DNA Galleries 1709 NW 16 Okc OK. Then swing by the Paseo Plunge 3010 Paseo Okc OK for Native Pop. After that go up a few buildings and hit up Native American Body of Art, 2920 Paseo Okc OK. Get wild.”
Below, Garrett expounds on his background, inspiration and art.
How would you describe your work?
I'm not sure how to describe my work. I call it "porretv" (bo-theh-ta). That's "witchcraft" in Muscogee Creek from my understanding. I grew up having my palms read and my tarot cards read to me. Even in a Baptist household. It's weird. I know. I use a lot of shapes, lines, letters and numbers in every piece. All of these elements are combined to create these constant symbols being thrown at the viewer over and over and over again. Combine these lines and shapes with distorted images of our cultural past and lo and behold, a spell is born. This spell allows the viewer to see the process of assimilation and the power of symbolism and how the Powers That Be use symbols to control your consumption and thought patterns.
How has your art evolved over the years?
As far as evolution, I started this whole art thing around December of 2012. After spending about 4 or 5 years writing poetry, I decided to shift my focus on art. It began with my fascination with over consumption in the U.S. Nobody is ever satisfied with what they have in their presence at any given moment. In the U.S., there is always this desire to have more, more, more. Also, everything must be immediate. There's no patience here in the U.S. I began making these collage-type pieces with these fashion model cut-outs along with the shapes, lines, numbers, letters and spray paint. Eventually, the cut-out models shifted to Native-type portraits in oil pastel.
I’m interested in your previous exhibit showcased at Paseo Plunge titled “Catching Shadows: Interpreting the Works of Edward S. Curtis.” What’s your take on Curtis?
The creation of the Catching Shadows exhibit was pretty neat. That started this whole oil pastel thing. I did a piece a day until 30 pieces were done then showed the gallery. From there on I attempted to do one painting a day for one year. As far as Edward's images and how they have shaped societal perception of Native people, I'm not really sure how to answer that. I personally perceived the images as dark and sad. A documentation of a terrible sadness about to come. I just enforce my spells and magic over his images and give the viewer a darkness and sadness that exists today.
You’ve said that your work is based on your experiences regarding conflicted spirituality, cultural isolation, over consumption and being deaf. Has art helped you sort through emotions surrounding those challenges? Has art empowered your sense of identity, and if so, how?
Well, when I say cultural isolation and conflicted spirituality you must understand that I'm speaking from a non traditional upbringing point of view. I am considered a half breed. Unfortunately there seems to be some judgement between traditional natives and non traditional natives. A sort of internal war. So, yes, it's somewhat of a challenge to get a message across. The message being "Look. It's fucked up the System divided us. It's fucked up that over the last 220 years during the civilization process of our people that I happened to be cut off from my culture and traditions and you happened maintain yours. It's fucked up we're not uplifting each other. This is exactly what the System wants. Killing off the culture generation by generation.". I'm actually more Creek than this silly card identifies me as. But thanks to the whole land allotment business for the Creeks, things got lost along the way and so.. here we are.
Cultural isolation. Conflicted spirituality. Over consumption. Being deaf. If you look at my work you will notice all four of those elements working together all at once. Those topics make up my life and what I have experienced. The Dead Feather concept. No one topic is reflected more than the other.
You were raised in a Baptist household. Where was that, and what was that experience like?
As far as the location of the Baptist household, for the most part, Shawnee. That's where my grandfather used to preach and instruct me to follow the White Man's Way. He changed his thinking a little before he passed away a few months ago. He was really into the religious studies of the peyote church. After being forced to learn a new language and belief system as he was growing up, I was so relieved to see him embracing his culture. Even for just a little bit. Assimilation will completely destroy a culture generation by generation. Just to see him studying that little bit of cultural information was proof that even after 90 years of cultural oppression, he was well aware of the negative impact it had on himself as well as his grandchildren. I don't think he wanted his grandchildren to forget about their history. He gave me his library on Muscogee/Creek studies.
You told Paseo Plunge: “I am a product of my surroundings and all of these elements and experiences tie in and connect in one way or another. Even though I am aware of my surroundings, at times I still feel like a dead feather amongst the debris.” Dead Feather is also your Instagram name. Can you break it down further for us? Does the feather represent your indigenous heritage?
Dead Feather is a concept I've been working on since around 2005 or so. Dead Feather is my battle with cultural isolation, conflicted spirituality, over consumption and being deaf. The feather represents whatever you want it to.
You’ve said Native Pop has helped you embrace the historical and spiritual aspects of your heritage. Did joining the collective challenge you to think about your native heritage and culture in new ways, and if so, how?
Native Pop definitely made me dive a little deeper into my roots. This last year has been real inspiring. I spent more time with my late grandfather's library reading on Muscogee Creek history. I've been learning to speak Creek words and counting in Creek as well. It's been a blast. I don't have anyone to teach me this stuff or guide me. So it's kind of given me a new responsibility to myself.
This interview has been condensed and edited.