Tom Jones (Ho-Chunk), “My Country, ‘tis of Thee” (2002), digital inkjet print, is part of the exhibit “These Colors Will Not Run” at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art. (collection Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art / photo by EG Schempf)
Color speaks volumes — its absence or presence conveying stark realities, deep emotions and breathtaking beauty. It can wield power, invite someone in or push them away. “These Colors Will Not Run” at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art is an exploration of color, from the vibrance of bugle beads and crayons to the dull grayscale of black and white photographs. It is also an examination into the lives, cultures and artmaking practices of each artist — all of whom are living Native artists — including Craig George (Navajo/Diné), Jeffrey Gibson (Cherokee/Choctaw), Dyani White Hawk (Sičangu Lakota), James Johnson (Tlingit), Tom Jones (Ho-Chunk), Douglas Miles (San Carlos Apache) and Holly Wilson (Delaware Nation/Cherokee).
The titular phrase — “These Colors Will Not Run” — appears on Jones’ print “My country, ‘tis of Thee.” In it, two Native women stare out at viewers. The elder is seated, grasping a cane, while the younger stands next to her, wrapped in a black blanket. Behind them, an American flag ripples in the wind, held by a smiling white woman rendered in 1950s pin-up style. Jones’ work references the complexities of patriotism, juxtaposing archival Native images with classic Americana. His “Protect us by Thy might” displays an archival image of an Indian war dance with text at the bottom explaining, “Native Americans proportionally send more of their people off to war, more than any other group in America.” In each piece, sepia tones are broken with the ubiquitous colors of the American flag.
Highlighting an array of colors, like that of a crayon box, Wilson’s “How Much More Must She Bear” features a grid of 12 miniature busts of girls adorned in bear ears. The girls are nearly identical, yet within their distant expressions come slight variances. Each bear is a different color, from black and white to bright green and orange. Wilson explains, “The Bear Girls do not see the color of each other’s skin or limitations that have been placed upon them because of who they are or where they come (from).”
Gibson’s and White Hawk’s works are strikingly intricate, highlighting more traditional Native artmaking practices. Gibson’s “Shield, number 1” is composed of a deer hide painted in vibrant geometric shapes stretched across a wooden ironing board. Sharp triangles jut out from the shield, indicating their intent to protect. White Hawk’s “Untitled (All the Colors)” features intricately threaded beads arranged in bold horizontal stripes. The piece is rounded like an archway beckoning viewers.
Themes of athleticism link the works of Miles, Johnson and George though their mediums are vastly different. Miles’ “Douglas Miles at The Fort” is a photograph of Miles’ son, professional skateboarder Doug Miles, Jr., in front of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Miles is “a photographer that has been capturing Native American reality, not romanticism, triumph, not tragedy,” according to the artist’s website. Johnson’s graphic, animalistic works are painted on old skateboards. George’s lifelike “Need for Speed” oil painting depicts a bike racer leaning toward the handlebars shouting, in pain or exaltation, as he whirs past graffiti-lined walls.
Colors may fade over time, yet their symbols and imprints are lasting. Featuring works all drawn from the museum’s permanent collection, “These Colors Will Not Run” is an expression of each artist’s relationship to color and what various colors evoke in them. It is also a snapshot of a moment in their lives — their passions, perspectives and shared histories as Native people. Though the artists, tribes and works are unique, “These Colors Will Not Run” pulls them into a cohesive whole.
“These Colors Will Not Run” continues at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College, 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park, through Dec. 21. (The show will close temporarily, Sept. 4-15, for a display of Wild Life! auction artworks.) Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Hear an artist talk with Dyani White Hawk Sept. 28. For more information, 913.469.3000 or www.nermanmuseum.org.