The husband-and-wife team of Jason Lujan and Maria Hupfield – aka Native Art Department International, a collaborative venture that the duo say operates as an “emancipation of identity-based works of art” – presented “Bureau of Aesthetics ”, a solo show at Mercer Union and NADI’s premiere in Canada. Barriers, both physical and visual, abound: at the entrance to the exhibition is a large Judd-type structure constructed from sheets of fluorescent pink acrylic wedged between wooden beams (Construction, 2019). The rectilinear shape literally interrupts viewers’ paths and screws with our sight lines, distracting us further by reflecting a large graphic black and white mural, reminiscent of a battleship hull covered in dazzling camouflage. At the center of the show is Installation, 2020, a set of interlocking L-shaped walls constructed from acrylic and Sheetrock plus mirror. Several sections have been left unfinished to display the steel frame that forms the supporting structure for a series of smaller artwork, a video installation, and a crudely crafted bookshelf featuring spiral-bound photocopies of texts by the Situationist leader. Guy Debord, by the Uruguayan novelist Eduardo Galeano, and extracts from The worst-case scenario survival manual (1999) by comedian Joshua Piven. Much like the dazzling camouflage, the environment created by the artists escapes perception by overwhelming the senses rather than trying to successfully blend into its background.
Failure at “mimicry” – or, when the colonized subvert the values, aesthetics and traditions of their colonizers by poorly imitating them, according to theorist Homi K. Bhabha – is clearly one of the central goals of NADI. Lujan and Hupfield are Indigenous artists who, with tongues firmly planted in their cheeks, adopt the structure and nickname of a bureaucratic body as a way to deflect institutional expectations to produce work that adheres to stereotypical assumptions about what should look like. “Native American” art. Two pieces appearing within the central display structure of the show bear witness to this: There is no yesterday or today; Only is and is not, 2018, and Untitled (Carl Beam), 2017. The first is a single-channel video that documents Bronx-born artist Dennis RedMoon Darkeem dancing in an empty auditorium in Yamasee Yat’siminoli costume; the jingle cones on his boots provide the soundtrack while the subheads describe his experiences as Black and Native man who, because of stereotypes about indigeneity and skin color, is rarely seen as both. This last work is composed of a neon sign NO U TURN superimposed on a lithograph (Circulation, 1997) by the late Ojibwa artist Carl Beam. The print stacks up images of a crow and a traffic light, contrasting Indigenous and Western modes of measuring direction and distance. While Beam’s art was eventually accepted into some of North America’s largest institutional collections, his more conceptual works were often overlooked in favor of pieces that made more reference to his Indigenous heritage. NADI’s reappropriation of Beam’s print suggests that such essentialist methods of classifying art and artists are a dead end.
An installation, performance props and a series of videos at the back of the gallery testify to the collective’s commitment to artistic camaraderie, decolonial politics and non-competition. Among these was All that is sacred is far away, 2019, a video that deploys a group of NADI collaborators who use awkward cardboard replicas of real-life objects and artwork (like an I ♥ NY mug and a Rothko painting) to replay a series of events from the life of German- American anthropologist Franz Boas. They insolently comment on issues of tribal authenticity and the benefits of Western civilization and “convenience” (“Amazon Prime delivery in two days!” Proclaims one actor. “Vibrators! Internet!” Joined another). Reminiscent of community access television, organized labor role play, and Theater of the Oppressed strategies, the episodes are not meant to be realistic or compelling. In their sheer absurdity, they reveal something honest about cross-cultural interactions: that they are always messy, deeply strange, and perpetually under construction.