When you first view her anthropomorphic animal imagery, you might think Julie Buffalohead is presenting traditional images from Native American art and culture — and she is. But look a little
longer and deeper to discern what else she’s communicating with her ostensibly lighthearted portrayals. An acclaimed Indigenous artist and enrolled member of the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma, Julie Buffalohead loosely interprets the beliefs and customs of Ponca clans and obliquely critiques old stereotypes that Native Americans played no part in creating. The Denver Art Museum described her artwork in a recent one-woman exhibition there as using “metaphors, iconography, and storytelling narratives ... to describe emotional and subversive American Indian cultural experiences, and often [analyzing] the commercialization of American Indian culture.
As a member of the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma, Buffalohead uses storytelling and narrative imagery to describe the American Indian cultural experience. She uses an eclectic and often saturated palette to depict whimsical animal subjects and trickster tropes. The commercialization of Native American culture is expressed through these anthropomorphic characters and intentional use of line and color.
Buffalohead received her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 1995 and her Master of Fine Arts from Cornell University in 2001. Buffalohead is a recipient of the Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters and Sculptors Grant, the McKnight Foundation Fellowship for Visual Arts, a Jerome Foundation Travel and Study Grant, and the Fellowship for Visual Artists from the Minnesota State Arts Board.
My work has focused thematically upon describing Indian cultural experience through personal metaphor and narrative, drawing from the substance of traditional stories while contextualizing motifs of cultural identity. In pictorial terms, the works tend to evoke animals or anthropomorphism within a horizonless field, who are caught within the human condition, often tragic and comedic. Using an eclectic pallet, my painting juxtaposes evolving representations of animal spirit, deer, and coyote forms, and speaks to issues of commercialization of Native culture.
In 2014 at Highpoint printmaking center in Minneapolis, I created several print editions. In a lithograph titled "Revisionist history lesson", Coyote is telling a story holding shadow puppets with his paws; Rabbit sends Columbus, with his tomahawk, in a direction away from North America. I was addressing facets of identity spliced together with Native issues. Various symbols arise and collide together between White and Native perspectives. For example, how Native people's views of property and ownership, carry through to aspects of my own history, such as living with family in a suburb of Minneapolis during my teenage years.
My tribe, the Ponca were originally from northern Nebraska, and in 1876 were forcibly removed at gunpoint to Oklahoma. Throughout these print editions, themes of conflict and injury are evident. In some cases animals are missing horns, which to me reflects missing a part of oneself, and the ambiguity of being biracial.
Several prints (as well as other works in my career) depict the Trickster character from traditional Native stories. Sometimes represented as a coyote, crow or rabbit, the Trickster is a creator and destroyer with a dual nature. Understood to be inherently neither good nor evil, but both, and responsible for creation and destruction without shame, this ontology often runs counter to Western morality tales. In referencing this character, I am superimposing a metaphorical self portrait at times.
In the fall of 2017 I exhibited a piece titled "The Garden", a reaction to a controversy regarding the Walker Art Center's acquisition of a Sam Durant work for it's sculpture garden. Resembling a scaffold, part of Durant’s sculpture incorporated a facsimile of a gallows historically used in Minnesota in the 1862 hanging of thirty eight Indian men. At that time it caused extreme trauma for Native people. The installation of his sculpture sparked an outrage within the Minneapolis Indian community. My piece depicts a sort of tableau of Walker sculpture garden cliches with a cast of characters. They anarchistically subvert the highfalutin crowd favorites such as Claes Oldenburg's "Cherry in the spoon" while simultaneously taking heed of ghostly spiritual forces.
In January I came around full circle in the studio, to develop work for a solo exhibition at the Denver Art museum, which remains on view through February of 2019. The goal of the project set out to investigate a means for representing the nature of each of the Ponca tribe's seven clans. Each clan has its own specific privileges, taboos, and tribal boundaries. To describe a piece in that exhibition – in a diptych titled, "A Little Medicine and Magic", I depict a stack of skunks being disciplined by a trickster coyote/mother figure in garish flared dress. The skunks have taken her lipstick and adorned themselves with a mark of honor. This relates to the Ponca Medicine clan whose animal representative is the skunk.