'Powwow Pop Art' and perseverance
Special to Indian Country Today
Out of the hundreds of paintings Roger Sosakete Perkins has created, “Faith Keeper” is among his favorites.
In the Mohawk tradition, the faith keeper’s job is to ensure the tribe’s young people learn its songs, dances and culture, and to find and encourage their hidden gifts.
“I now have five children and one grandchild, and hope I do this not only for my own family, but for everyone who views my art, particularly at this very difficult time in our shared history as Native people,” said Sosakete Perkins, Mohawk.
The pandemic has been hard for artists, especially those like Sosakete Perkins in the highly competitive and expensive San Francisco Bay Area.
The artist best-known for his vivid “Powwow Pop Art” style — in which he “reclaims” old images of Native Americans that were once used in advertising — has kept working, creating new pieces that reflect his concern. But it hasn't been easy.
“It has taken me at least 20 years to be able to completely support myself and my family as an artist, without having to do other types of jobs,” said Sosakete Perkins, who also creates pottery, T-shirts, sculpture and posters. “Now that has all changed.”
He recently hung 20 paintings for an exhibit at a downtown Oakland, California, property management company.
“It is a beautiful space, but no one will show up,” he said.
Many of the shows and events that Sosakete Perkins and other Native artists were relying on to support their families this year have been canceled. For Sosakete Perkins, those included the Santa Fe Indian Market in New Mexico, an exhibit in Prescott, Arizona, the Stanford University Pow Wow, four exhibits at businesses in the San Francisco and Oakland areas and a large exhibition at the Robinson Rancheria casino in Clear Lake, California.
But he knows it’s not just artists who are struggling.
On his birthday this year, Sosakete Perkins created a GoFundMe page asking for donations to Oakland’s Intertribal Friendship House, the first community center established in 1955 for tribal families relocated to the San Francisco Bay area during the federal Relocation Act.
“So many of our families are now suffering terribly from unemployment, lack of food for elders, lack of computers for kids in school who need them in order to study from home,” he said. “This area is one of the most expensive areas in the U.S. in which to live, so many of us are in survival mode. We need our community centers, health centers, and powwows to help us all survive and thrive.”
Sosakete Perkins graduated from the American Indian Institute of Arts, and relocated to Northern California in 2006.
In 2013, he graduated from Berkeley City College after studying digital arts with an instructor who challenged students to literally create their own art movements.
That’s where he achieved his unique Powwow Pop Art style, which incorporates painting with vintage photos.
“I use lots of imagery from companies and corporations who have used Native American images in order to sell their products,” he said. “Basically, I am reclaiming our images that they expropriated without our permission, and reframing them in my own way.”
He adds color and dimension to the photos, then layers them with images of nature, such as birds and trees. Some works include copper, buttons and other forms of mixed media.
He also has been commissioned to do large murals, and he crafts pottery in his tribe’s traditional way. His name, Sosakete, means: “He carries the corn on his back.”
“During the 1600s and 1700s, so many skills had to be left behind due to the effects of colonization,” Sosakete Perkins said. “I found an old piece of pottery one day in the Mohawk Valley in 1993, and something happened to me. I just decided I had to learn to create this form again.”
He did extensive research with an amateur archaeologist, Jan Swart, who “shared his collection with me, and his knowledge of Mohawk Valley.”
Sosakete Perkins began gathering his own materials, making pots “as close to the old way as possible” by mixing quartz and other minerals into the clay.
One of the places he has shown his traditional pottery and Powwow Pop Art is the Gathering Tribes Native American Art Gallery in Albany, California.
He has displayed his work there many times over the years, patiently telling customers about his work, said owner Pennie Opal Plant, Chocktaw, Cherokee and Mexica.
“He also conducted the Mohawk Thanksgiving Address several times, which brought many of us to grateful tears. Roger, sometimes accompanied by his brother Kenny, also led customers in traditional Mohawk social dances, which was such a blessing,” she said.
“We are all so grateful to know Roger and appreciate his many talents."
Opal Plant has owned Gathering Tribes for nearly 30 years but decided to close it due to the pandemic and create an online gallery space for American Indian artists.
She will continue showing Sosakete Perkins’ work.
"Roger Sosakete Perkins is a valued member of the Bay Area Native American community, as well as a valued member of the community around Gathering Tribes,” she said.
Nanette Deetz is Dakota and Cherokee originally from Crow Creek, S.D. She is a published poet, actress, and educator now living in the San Francisco Bay Area.