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)