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A new piece at the UW Art Museum highlights Indigenous identity, culture and beauty.
By Michelle Sunset, Curator
Curators at the University of Wyoming Art Museum are excited to share the museum’s latest acquisition. The permanent collection includes a broad range of artwork from around the globe spanning different mediums and time periods, including many works considered traditional Western American art. For the past several years, the museum has been actively collecting artwork by contemporary Indigenous and women artists to highlight work that will allow for a fuller and more accurate picture of art globally and in the West. The museum’s most recent acquisition is Hip Hop NDN by artist Dana Claxton. Claxton is Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux and was born in Saskatchewan in 1959. She is professor and head of the Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory, University of British Columbia. Claxton’s work exploring Indigenous identity, culture and beauty spans decades and mediums — primarily film and photography.
Hip Hop NDN connects with Claxton’s earlier bodies of photographic work in its embrace of fashion and performativity. The figure, performed by Blackfoot filmmaker Cowboy Smithx, is posed beside a lowrider bike in a studio with a vibrant turquoise background. The studio background is a common theme in her work — earlier series feature dramatic red backgrounds to dislocate the scene from time and space. These backgrounds further serve to highlight the figures and objects in the frame. In Hip Hop NDN, Smithx is captured swinging a lasso with a cool expression on his face. Claxton dressed him in clothing and accessories that meld hip hop and Lakota culture. He wears a velvet tracksuit with large chain necklaces intermingling with beadwork. The lowrider bike features a painted buffalo head in front of the handlebars and a painted parfleche (rawhide container) on the other end. This image connects to one of Claxton’s earlier series, Lasso (2018), by situating Smithx in the stylized turquoise space. Through these works, Claxton calls attention to perceptions of Indigenous identity past and present and its possibilities. She employs recognizable symbols and a highly controlled visual environment to complicate this narrative.
The Art Museum plans to exhibit Hip Hop NDN in the forthcoming exhibition, The New West: The University of Wyoming Art Museum at Fifty, opening in summer 2023. To celebrate the museum’s 50th anniversary, it is curating an exhibition using the permanent collection to explore what Western American art is and can be and to resituate this narrative by highlighting Indigenous artists and voices.