Treasures from the Vault: Wendy Red Star

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings

Born in Billings, Montana in 1981, Wendy Red Star grew up on the Apsáalooke (Crow) reservation in southeastern Montana and is now based in Portland, Oregon. Red Star received her BFA from Montana State University, Bozeman. As an undergrad, she learned that the university was on former Apsáalooke land. She freely admits that Native American history was absent from her public school education in U.S. history and that it was in college where she learned more. From 1851 to 1905, a territory that once covered 38.5 million acres was reduced to 2.25 million acres. In response to this unrecognized part of its history, Red Star honored her ancestors by constructing an installation of tipis throughout campus.   

Red Star received her MFA from University of California, Los Angeles in 2006 and as a graduate student created Four Seasons (2006), which is now in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Portland Art Museum, and the Minneapolis Institute of Art. They grew from a longing for home and her community, and because she knew she would find Apsáalooke works there, she visited the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles. Wait, did we just say a natural history museum, not an art museum, which brings to mind things from the past, like dinosaurs? 

Like photographers Cindy Sherman and Carrie Mae Weems, Red Star poses in a series of four staged scenes that are reminiscent of natural history museum dioramas that sought to make realistic re-creations of habitats from the natural world. The artist wears a traditional elk-tooth dress (iichiilihtawaleiittaashte), which is a symbol of status. Since the elk only have two eye-teeth, the dress displays a family’s hunting prowess or trading skills. This sense of cultural richness and authenticity found in the artist’s hairstyle and clothing, however, contrasts with the fake landscape behind her. Plastic plants and fabric leaves populate the carpet, or Astro Turf terrain. Instead of taxidermy specimens, the artist adds a campy twist by using blow-up or cardboard cut-outs of animals. Red Star works in the space between conceived authenticity and representation vs. self-representation. All this artifice aligns with the range of misconceptions and stereotypes that abound about Native Americans. She explains, “Humor is healing to me…To have that element in my work is quite Native, or Crow, and I’m glad that it comes through. It’s universal. People can connect with the work that way. Then they can be open to talking about race.”

Red Star has since explored the U.S. government’s historical relationship and impact on the Apsáalooke Nation through her extensive research for her work focusing on portraits of the Crow Peace Delegations of 1873 and 1880. In more recent photographs, the artist has collaborated with her daughter, Beatrice.    

Instead of the nostalgic images that are perpetuated about Native Americans by photographers like Edward Curtis, the subjects of Red Star’s works in the museum’s permanent collection are taken from today. In The (HUD), uniform, one-story homes are stacked in a pyramid like children’s blocks. HUD is the acronym for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, established in 1965 to ensure all people have access to affordable housing. Through the direction of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, they are a common image on the Apsáalooke reservation (and others) beginning in the 1970s through today.    

In this print, houses are stacked one on top of the other. Each have an individual color and show the personality of the family through the objects outside of them: bikes, cars, string lights.
Wendy Red Star, American, b. 1981. The (HUD). Lithograph, collage and archival pigment prints, 2010. Museum purchase with funds provided by the McMurray Family Endowment, 2014. 328. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Red Star photographed houses and cars in Pryor on the reservation, sometimes focusing on those belonging to family members and friends. Often the owners relayed stories that brought the objects to life. Like children’s blocks, HUD homes are not known for their individuality, however, as you look at the print more, each house bears details revealing information about the owners. Icicle lights, cars, folding chairs, bikes, and scooters are out front. Homes are painted in an array of joyfully bright colors: maroon, lavender, yellow, aqua, and flamingo pink, as they playfully stack on top of each other into a tower in the sky. 

In Rez Car 1, a broken-down car drawn in silver ink is set against a solid magenta background. Some may initially view these dilapidated cars as a sign of poverty and oppression, but the bright color tempers this interpretation. Red Star, herself, has fond childhood memories of playing in “rez cars,” a vehicle for imaginary journeys. The elimination of subject’s context encourages the viewer to examine it more closely.   

Against a bright pink background is a silvered car, lacking wheels and with it's hood lifted showing the inside.
Wendy Red Star, American, b. 1981. Rez Car 1. Lithograph, 2010. Museum purchase with funds provided by the McMurray Family Endowment, 2014. 329. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Red Star suggests a quiet, harmonious moment in enit, an expression of agreement. Since 1904, Crow Fair has taken place every third week in August near Billings, Montana. The fair began as the means for the U.S. government to reinforce their agricultural agenda. The current celebration is a gathering for all Indigenous people of the Great Plains and is an expression of pride as people gather wearing their finest and participate in parades, dances, and rodeos. In enit, two women sit on top of a parade car, which is elaborately decorated with blankets. They look out at an abstract sunset made up of bands of yellow, orange, and blue that recall a woven fabric, perhaps a blanket pattern from Pendleton Woolen Mills. 

Two women sit atop a car covered in blankets looking away from the viewer toward the sunset of yellow and orange bands below the blue bands of the sky.
Wendy Red Star, American, b. 1981. enit. Lithograph, chine colle with collage of archival pigment print, 2010. Museum purchase with funds provided by the McMurray Family Endowment, 2013. 26. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Red Star’s subjects are welcome, familiar images when she returns home. She recalled, “Often these cars and houses are viewed as blemishes that indicate laziness, poverty, and a deficiency in education. Living around these cars and houses though, they have come to represent a resilient and proud community to me—a community that overcomes obstacles to keep its culture alive. I see beauty in these objects and in their particularity they somehow make me proud to be a part of evolving Crow culture.”   

Recently, while returning home, she was bestowed the name Baaéetitchish (One Who Is Talented), also the name of her great uncle, who is a “cultural keeper.” Her works have been widely exhibited, and she has become an advocate for the exhibition of Native American women artists. She has received awards and fellowships from the Joan Mitchell Foundation, Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation, and the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis. 

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