Acclaimed Indigenous artist Cannupa Hanska Luger — who rose to prominence with his Mirror Shield Project during the Standing Rock protests — has opened a new exhibit in Manhattan using flattened teepees and clay bullets as canvases for political protest and satire.
The exhibit, Cannupa Hanska Luger: Hostile Territory, is his second solo exhibition with the Garth Greenan Gallery in former Lenape territory. It runs through Feb. 25.
Luger, who is of Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara/Lakota and European descent, uses five teepees to form a basis for the artwork and two sets of painted, ceramic bullets from his series, Rounds.
“Primarily, my drive for it was thinking of the use of Indian Country as hostile territory in military terms,” he told ICT, speaking by phone from the Atlanta airport on his way to an exhibit in the Carolinas.
“The decision to paint on teepees was this idea of mobility and movement and home, and what it means for home to be a hostile territory, what it means for the place of your ancestors and the time immemorial in a relationship to the land that you could be considered hostile,” he said.
Luger explores both the power and fragility of teepees as shelter and bullets made of breakable clay. He created an acronym for the alternate spelling, TIPI — “Transportable Intergenerational Protection Infrastructure” — to encapsulate the idea that they were a testament to Indigenous resilience and innovation in the face of struggle and war.
He said the visual motifs were inspired by graphics and cartoons from the 1930s and 1940s, such as nose cone art on airplanes.
“I was just thinking about that time in American history and its effort to grow tremendously on the international circuit,” he said. “It is geopolitical power and simultaneously cartooning and misrepresenting the cultures that make up the continent's population.”
He scaled the teepees down to a size that would flatten out onto a gallery wall, encouraging viewers to twist them around in their mind.
“I was drawing from cartoons from the 1930s,“ Luger said, “exploring that as a visual language to embed on it. But then it started moving into things that felt like propaganda or military insignia as a way to embed that on a dwelling. It’s also looking back and thinking about beading American flags onto your clothes so that you are protected by that symbol. You're not considered hostile, and can guarantee the safety of your children in an effort to transform regalia, show an allegiance and the effect of that.”
The idea morphed into how other flags and insignia could be embedded onto the teepee canvases as a way to represent resistance, he said.
“I'm also thinking about and responding to the effect of a teepee becoming a symbol and a representation of Native people, and then the transformation of that technology into kids’ play pens and dog houses,” he said. “The scale that I was working at was to perpetuate the idea of cartooning, to make something impossible to use or obsolete or a plaything.”
The Rounds series of painted ceramic bullets depict blue-and-white porcelain, military camouflage, cobalt-colored flowers and gold-leaf-and-porcelain treatments. As symbols of colonial violence, Luger unwinds the object from its deadly function and finds a strange, pointed beauty.
‘Mirror Shield Project’
Luger came to artworld prominence with the 2016 Mirror Shield Project for the protection of his homelands and water during the Standing Rock protests.
He was inspired by images at the time of women holding mirrors up to riot police in Ukraine, so that the police and the violence they were advancing was reflected back at them.
For that project, he created a simple ply board with a mirrored surface made of reflective vinyl used on cars. He insists they are not art, and even has a video with instructions on how to make them. But a video he created of lines of protesters holding the shields over their heads walking down a trail became what he calls “a river” that flowed to the low point where police were gathering.
“We're mostly water,” he said. “Yet somehow we managed to move upstream, move uphill, climb to the highest points, and we flow in that way.”
The video caught the attention of the artworld and soon after Standing Rock, Luger was invited to be in dozens of shows. In 2018, he won a prize for contemporary craft from the Museum of Arts and Design, which exhibited the Mirror Shield Project alongside some of Luger’s other works.
Two years later, he signed with the Garth Greenan Gallery, a mainstream New York City gallery that has built a roster of indigenous breakthrough artists, including Jaune Quick-to-See Smith and Brad Kahlhamer.
A prestigious Guggenheim fellowship followed, and he led a workshop on making mirror shields at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the Mirror Shield Project was included in a water-themed group exhibition put together by Patricia Marroquin Norby, the first Native curator in the museum’s 150-year history.
“That work is really complicated for me,” Luger said, “because it’s one I built out of necessity. I had a hard time understanding it as art when down the road institutions were interested in it. I was still angry, questioning like, ‘Where were you when we needed you?’ But I encourage, whenever we exhibit the work, for institutions to build those shields and redistribute them. That work still moves around.”
Finding a home
The latest exhibition brought Luger back to painting, which he had not done in eight years while he focused his attention on ceramics and making installations.
“There was a learning curve to recall and build that muscle memory,” he said. “But I think one of the things that helped me move through that was knowing that these were and are three-dimensional objects, they're just being presented two-dimensionally.”
He continued, “There's something about them being staked to the wall that makes them inaccessible, which also talks about the expectation that you can go into it, and that it can be a home for you … It’s not trapped by the edges of a frame or canvas.”
The works include Kill Time, which depicts a two-headed buzzard as the dual reality of scavenger and harbinger of death.
In Blood Lust, Sabotage, and Whiskey Tango, the teepees are painted with outsized cartoon eyes and tooth-filled mouths, a reference to historical Air Force nose-cone art painted like a shark’s head.
As for the future, Luger has shows in California and is juggling postponed shows happening soon with new commitments. He also wants to balance time for his family in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
“I’m just trying to figure out how to do it better and smarter,” he said, “and sustain our family unit as we navigate these spaces.”
–Sandra Hale Schulman