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March 05, 2010

HIDE - A Thick-Skinned Beast

HIDE Cov1

American Indians are often masters of metaphor. Alternative meanings that reflect our spirituality and the histories and narratives of our communities charge much of the world around us. This also extends to the artwork we create. There is no great mystery inherent to any of this, of course, nor are Native people unique in this way. It is a symptom of the human condition to crave and create meaning, to examine and interpret what we’ve been presented with, and to make choices about what we reveal or hide or see.

It’s also no surprise that skin—our most intimate cover for what’s literally on the inside of each of us—offers rich material in terms of metaphor. The English language presents a number of examples related to skin that we use without thought, almost daily. Some are cautionary words about illusion and reality, as in beauty is only skin deep. Other phrases—it’s like a second skin or it got under my skin—suggest comfort, or the lack of it. And descriptors like thick skinned or thin skinned speak of the emotional distance we maintain between ourselves and others. The same multilayered nature of the artworks in HIDE: Skin as Material and Metaphor is central not only to the exhibition but to this book’s essays. The exhibition—the name of which offers its own multiple meanings—assembles the work of several contemporary artists as they examine issues of identity and consider what it means to be Indian within the context of what we choose to reveal, to hide, and to see.

As individuals, our skin is not only a protection but also a document of our wounds and healing, a witness to our personal histories in the form of scars, stretch marks, and wrinkles. Maori, Hawaiian, and other traditional indigenous tattoo designs literally inscribe an individual’s story and life force on the skin, and many people today find it appropriate to express themselves by ornamenting their bodies with tattoos, makeup and other forms of paint, and piercings. These alterations aside (and despite American culture’s apparent obsession with preventing or treating signs of aging), we generally expect an individual’s skin to accurately represent their life experiences. After all, to be truly unimpeded by the confines of our histories, as documented in the form of our skin, is to belong to the indigenous realm of shapeshifters, those who possess supernatural abilities to change their physical form. At the end of the day, our skin keeps us honest. Try as we might, we cannot separate ourselves from it. And we should not want to.

Our “hides” are important to this dialogue as well. Entire communities may become defined, by themselves and others, based on what they collectively decide to reveal or keep hidden. Another significant conversation about identity and self determination is currently underway at the National Museum of the American Indian, in partnership with the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in the form of the exhibition IndiVisible and its related scholarship. Like HIDE, IndiVisible considers surface appearances, and what they reveal and hide, within the specific context of our African-Native American communities.

Our “red” skin has meant a great many things to us and to others over the last several centuries. It has been venerated and nearly idolized, and it has made us vulnerable to hate and violence. It has been a source of pride and shame and confusion within our communities, especially as related to its various shades, which themselves bear witness to the various histories of our ancestors. And for as long as Native people have been recorded in images, we have been misrepresented, whether in the beautifully staged romantic photographs by Edward S. Curtis, the perverse exaggerations of sports mascots and Hollywood stereotypes, or the unintentional distortions by otherwise well-meaning individuals. The deconstruction of this imagery is central to HIDE. Here we ponder the artists’ representations of a few of the many ways of being a “real” twenty-first-century Indian: celebrating our beautiful skin, acknowledging the scars we bear as individuals and as tribal nations, and recognizing the scars we inflict on our Mother Earth. HIDE is also a manifestation of a larger and long-term initiative at the National Museum of the American Indian, namely its Modern and Contemporary Native Arts Program, which will continue to present thoughtful and innovative works by today’s leading Indian artists.

I am reminded of the words of American poet Walt Whitman—himself a master of metaphor—who once said, “The public is a thick-skinned beast, and you have to keep whacking away at its hide to let it know you’re there.” I’m grateful to the artists who continue to whack away, and in the process have enlightened us about who they—and who we all—are.

Kevin Gover (Pawnee)
Director

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Comments

Fascinating Kevin. I will be recommending this post and associated information on the exhibit to my class on Native American Spirituality and Lifestyle at Grossmont College this semester. We just reviewed some of Curtis' photos and the imagery that the Native faces he captured relate to us. The beautifully decorated hides as well as facial and body decoration do indeed tell us a "hidden" story.

The discussion of how we use skin all day long as a metaphor reminded me of some time I spent in Japan. They have a term there that they have taken from English - "skinship." It's about the importance of touch.

If you talk to your friend every day over a long distance, they feel there is a missing component in Japan. Skinship is when two people touch, whether they are friends or something more.

As much as skin represents our age through wrinkles and our genetic history through color, it also expresses our emotions through touch. In this modern world, real touch is often lacking as we only communicate via the internet.

Absolutely valuable your individual writings to help me. So I currently have received a lot because of your current blogs and it is my best opportunity to share the great viewpoints with you.I hope we all can make contact much more by the mailbox and blog.Thanks a lot.

I really like traditional style tattoos and have been studying them for some time so I really enjoyed this article. The interesting thing is that at the shop I work at near Portland, Oregon we do a lot of tattoos that reflect people's lives. Many people want to get the names of their children or family name tattoo'd on their body. The one name I have trouble with sometimes is if it is from someone who has died. I just wonder if they really want to be reminded of that their whole life. You can see some of our tattoos here: http://troutdaletattoo.com/tag/custom-tattoo-portland/

I really loved the imagery of the skin as not just being an outward protection but a visible reflection of ones wounds and healing. Very powerful.

Sincerely,

Daniel Tetreault.
Sidney, BC

I loved this article and am a student of tattooing. My skin is a diary of my life, from wounds from my younger days to the sanskrit tattoo that marks my union with my wife it will forever keep me honest.

I find ancient language tattoos to be fascinating especially those in runic alphabets or in sanskrit.

For Native people, skin encompasses an entire universe of meaning. Our own skin functions as a canvas that we can inscribe with messages about our identity or use as a shield to protect and hide our secrets.This book seems really interesting.I will make a point to go through this book.

I wonder how this would interplay with the position of the original peoples of Australia. Are there any metaphors you think are universal?

Regards,
Jake

Skin is our Identity, I mean, we can identify each individuals if they are old, or young, by looking at their skin. As simple as that, anyway thanks to this great post, I learn from it.

As much as skin represents our age through wrinkles and our genetic history through color, it also expresses our emotions through touch. In this modern world, real touch is often lacking as we only communicate via the internet.

Your ending about Whitman brought to mind one of my favorites quotes: "The finest clothing made is a person's own skin." ~ Mark Twain

I will tell you a secret, we are all magnificent spirits in human form, we are all God in disguise. We are the truth and the light. If all people knew this for sure, it would be the end of all suffering.

Thanks for the well written post. Some people are skin conscious. Some discriminate against other people by their skin color whether it is dark or white, but what matters is we are all God's creation.

A great story about your employee and her being half-Irish. VERY honored!

Our skin may be red, black, white or somewhere in between, but we truly are "one" and should celebrate our beautiful skin.

“The public is a thick-skinned beast, and you have to keep whacking away at its hide to let it know you’re there.”

Our cloak in society, Its a very interesting read. It means so much to us and so little, when we think about it. We treasure our hide and yet take it for granted. hmmm... interesting read indeed.

Cheers,
Sam

having only studied indian culture intemittently I never realized the importance of skin. It makes complete obvious sense but now looking back it clarifies and intrigues me on many indian styles and references.

Since my teenage days i had been very conscious of my skin color, i have tried different kinds of soaps and lotions to make me more fair. But then i realize it really doesn't matter what skin color you have, what's important is your attitude and how you carry yourself. Cheers!!

Ciara

An eye-opener. I never really noticed the many uses of the word skin as a metaphor before coming across this post. Really interesting information. The importance of skin in our being, image, and self expression and the meanings associated go far further than i ever thought. Thanks for the post.

Once again, insightful, to say the least....

I absolutely admire lines like this : "As individuals, our skin is not only a protection but also a document of our wounds and healing, a witness to our personal histories in the form of scars, stretch marks, and wrinkles. "

I got a bit sidetracked off my work using google, but glad i found this story about skin, natives and metaphors...
back to work!

I admire too the metaphore of skin. It is simply terrific. Congratulations

Absolutely valuable your individual writings to help me. So currently have received a lot because of your current blogs and it is my best opportunity to share the great viewpoints with you.I hope we all can make contact much more by the mailbox and blog. Thanks a lot.

An interesting article that i will be keeping my readers linked to...

Cheltenham 2011

Brilliant article. I understand why our skin is a means of so many metaphors, after all skin is our personal "force shield" in sci fi terms. Without our skin, we are defenseless and we will die.

Regards,
Adam

Einstein told us that we need a higher level of thinking to get ourselves out of the mess than the thinking that got us into the mess. Stephen Covey tells us that in such situations as we are in today we need a quantum change that can only be brought about by a completely new paradigm. Our current way of living is the paradigm that got us into the mess. The Indian approach is probably the paradigm that will get us out of the mess. If we read this book with an open mind and without prejudice, I believe that the Native American paradigm should be at the top of the shortlist of new paradigms from which we should make our selection for building the world we want for our children.

Terrific Article Kevin. Its amazing how the skin can mean so much and be so powerful. I guess it must be one of the oldest methods of communication as such!

It goes back to..."the old ways are the best ways." I learned about the meaning of skin. The use of metaphors with skin is interesting. Out skin is like the first page of a long book. Many thanks for this.

That is true of contemporary art.. It's a symptom of the human condition to crave and create meaning, to examine and interpret what we’ve been presented with, and to make choices about what we reveal or hide or see.

Nice article! Fact is people tend to put too much emphasis on color of skin that leaves them blind to what makes each individual unique and beautiful.


Kevin, your post is very informative. And I agree to what you said. It's true that people hide their true self or feelings through the what we used to see in them, physically or the outer side of them is very different from the inside. It's quite the same with the saying that "true beauty is on the inside, and not on the outer side of a person".

I want to be with the Natives for even just a week so that I can learn more about their lives. If only I have the financial capacity to travel.

This is an interesting article.
As a young person I am unaware of
African Indians back in the early days.

Thanks for the educational article.

A human being skin color has always been a mystery to the untrained mind of hate all that's your color may be your kind is dumbfounded. ones color should not deteriorate ones ability to blessed others with wisdon, understanding and above all knowing, one should strive to be a citizen of the world.

Very interesting and intriguing story you have here. Oh how I love this quote, "The public is a thick-skinned beast, and you have to keep whacking away at its hide to let it know you’re there." Superb indeed!

Richard Barrick

Very smart article. I get why our skin is a means of so many metaphors, after all skin is our personal "force shield" in sci fi terms. Without our skin, we are defenseless and we will die.

What's an amazing post! It's very interesting and awesome. There are so many interesting not usual facts there. It also showes how deep could be connection between a body, language and feelings.

I love Indian Art in any form. I purchased a Sand Painting on one of our trips through New Mexico several years ago. It is so unique and original.

I am very pleased with this article, with our skin, we can express the world of our own lives, that is the art of tattoos

Very true. A few things that i found out studying tribal tattoos..

a. In Maori culture, persons with moko (Maori tattoo) represent they have higher social status;

b. Celtic cross means faith, unity and eternity of

c. God’s love while Celtic knot is symbolic of
life’s journey, and represents a continuity of life with no beginning and no end, a journey to one’s spiritual center.

When inked, these represent true faith and feelings of the individual.

Great article - thanks!
With one in four of the world's population being inked, the skin has become a true meduium of this art form.
Always remember... Think before you ink :)

I really loved the imagery of the skin as not just being an outward protection but a visible reflection of ones wounds and healing. Very powerful.

very true indeed

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