Sound & Vision: Jeffrey Gibson: Like a Hammer Hits a Chord with Its Native American Influence

Community Engagement, Sound and Vision
Emily Fox
"AMERICAN HISTORY (JB)", 2015, Jeffrey Gibson, Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians/Cherokee, b. 1972, wool, steel studs, glass beads, artificial sinew, metal jingles, acrylic yarn, nylon fringe, and canvas, 89 × 66 × 5 in.

There's a new exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum that opened this week. It's called Like a Hammer by Jeffrey Gibson. Gibson's work looks like a fusion of Native American culture mixed with modern day urban club culture. There's a lot of beadwork, but the colors are vibrant and bright. You see the beadwork on punching bags and wall hangings. Often you see song lyrics incorporated into that beadwork. Gibson also makes vibrant regalia and uses brightly colored textiles and patterns to drape over teepee-like structures. Gibson's art is influenced by his Choctaw and Cherokee heritage. He says he wasn't raised in a traditional or ceremonial Native American household. He did watch his grandmothers make some regalia and traditional art, but his artwork is influenced by much more: music, queer identity, and his worldly travels. 

"I grew up moving around. My father was a civil engineer with the Army. And so we lived in the U.S., we lived in Korea, we lived in a couple of places in Germany. I went to school in Chicago and in London. And so I think this mix of things — of aesthetics and art history — is around the world. I remember coming back to the US and feeling that I was being asked to either choose Native American or not Native American, and my reality of having grown up was just this tremendous mix of a million things from around the world. So it was more a decision just to let that happen. And of course, the immediate criticisms when I was in school and after, was, 'This is too much; we can't understand it. We don't understand how this mix of things makes any sense.' And by this point in 2019, I think we're all kind of coming from very mixed backgrounds. And so again, it's a story, a combination in my own narrative that I think people can relate to and project their own combinations into. So that's really it. I mean, I grew up in cities most of my life: you know, music, club culture. Being a part of different sort of alternative groups throughout my lifetime has been everything from my punk to mod to like queer culture in clubs. When I moved to London, there was like jungle and house in Chicago and just all of these mixes of things. They're like this massive library that I just get to kind of cull through and have fun with. 

photo by Peter Mauney


Can you talk a bit more about how music is incorporated into your visual art? 

"Well, originally when I first started using music it had to do with me not knowing who really my community was and, of course, when we use the word "community" and you're Native American... I think I wanted to think that it was the Choctaw community on a reservation. And they are my community and have provided me with a lot of support. Also, you know my mother's side of the family, the Cherokee Nation, have also been incredibly supportive. But it's really been this kind of LGBTQ community that I have found moving around the world that has really been the place where I always found safety, friendship, relationships, and it generally has always circulated around nightlife. And so the music of those areas, those places, are what I began looking at. You know, why did certain songs become these anthems that we would play over and over and over again? Or why was I fascinated with an artist who I wasn't sure if they were gay but I felt like their lyrics were speaking to me in a way that I was like they have to be gay because they're describing exactly what I feel? So that's really where it started from. And then just wanting to take those lyrics seriously because I think oftentimes club music, dance music, is often seen as just kind of beats and things that can make you move. But really when you listen to it — especially with Chicago house music, it's probably the core of my interest when it comes to lyrics, you know the sampling — it's really talking a lot about spirituality. It's talking a lot about prayer, hope, love, politics a lot of times come up within the lyrics. And I think also that period of music — and I'm talking about the late '80s and early '90s — is really like an audio collage with sampling, which is very much what I do."


You made an audio playlist for this show. Can you talk about one or two songs that you think really represent this fusion between art and music or songs that really stand out in your mind?

Well, OK, so one of those songs... probably when I was a teenager, probably late teens, it was the first time that I heard Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman." 

I just thought it was the most amazing song and hugely understood why this, this anthem kind of became how it exists historically and it continues to be relevant. And I remember being fascinated by the fact that anyone could write something so perfect. I've loved that song for years and I didn't actually make a piece about it until probably 2015, maybe even '16 and it's a piece titled "In Numbers Too Big To Ignore." It was after I was traveling around Winnipeg doing research, and there wasn't a single Indigenous person that I met who had not had an experience with a missing or murdered Indigenous woman. And I was shocked. And in Winnipeg, going around and seeing murals that were made by Native artists on the sides of walls and, of course, this was during what was a very extreme moment of Black Lives Matter, and I'm an educator as well, so supporting these kinds of conversations as much as I could. And yet this was not new to me but the extensive stories that people had to tell me and numbers that were being shared with me. I was shocked. So when I came back, I thought about that song and I made a piece and designed a bead pattern trying to express just a mass amount of, of — I mean, they're beads, but representative of people and so it's a primarily red piece. And at the bottom, it says "in numbers too big to ignore." 

Another song that inspired Gibson's artwork is "I've Got To Use My Imagination" by Gladys Knight and The Pips. 

Partially because of the time when it was written and historically like politically what was going on at the time. 

And I think it makes me think about like who is she singing to, who she is speaking to, and who's going to understand these words and the lyrics say I've got to use my imagination to think of good reasons to keep on keeping on. Unfortunately, the piece that those lyrics went into is not in this exhibition but as a wall hanging there with color. What I highlighted was to my nation think of reasons to keep on keeping you. 

It's this kind of ability to speak to my nation like who is my nation? Am I talking to Americans? Am I talking to the Choctaw Nation? Am I talking to the Cherokee Nation? And also the shift in language of how we describe native communities. So the word "nation" I think is a positive move for people to see themselves as having nationhood among their communities. 

Jeffrey Gibson: Like a Hammer is open now through May 12th at the Seattle Art Museum. More info here

Sound & Vision airs Saturday mornings at 7 AM PST. Hosted by Emily Fox and John Richards, the show "uses interviews, artistry, commentary, insight, and conversation to that tell broader stories through music, and illustrate why music and art matter."