Problematic Romance: Gregg Deal’s Indigenous Art for the 21st Century
Contemporary artist/activist Gregg Deal explores Indigenous identity and pop-culture, interrogating race relations, history, and stereotype. His latest performance piece, created especially for Woolly Mammoth, tackles romantic tropes and cultural appropriation with humor and wit to drive the issue home: romanticism isn’t real Indianism.
A sample exhibition of Gregg’s equally inspiring visual art, mixed media creations of vibrant color and provocative imagery on wood, canvas and acrylic, is on display in our lobby. When Gregg came over to hang these pieces, we spoke with him about his work, life, and the art of defying Romantic expectations.
From Gregg’s takeover of our Woolly Mammoth Instagram account, @woollymammothtc
To start, can you tell us about your background as an artist?
I am classically trained in oil. Before that, in the 90s, I was doing graffiti and street art on the west coast. Post-college, I was doing a mix of the two. Performance art has become a part of my toolbox after doing a mentorship in Italy with James Luna. He was the first Indigenous person to represent the United States for the Venice Biennale. It’s become a big part of my work in the last few years. Every artist nowadays tends to be a jack of all trades — I do a lot of stuff. Painting, street art murals, installation, conceptual work, as well as writing and photography. A little bit of everything.
Do you feel that DC is an especially important place for your work?
Yes and no. The art here tends to be very rich in content and spirit, but the DC arts scene as a whole struggles a little bit. Which is interesting considering the political climate that exists here. As far as the content or voice of my work, I feel like it has decent legs in DC, but it’s sometimes a little strained. Sometimes it feels like standing in an empty room and screaming at the top of your lungs. It becomes difficult to really get that out there, which is why social media ends up playing a big role in my work.
But I do love the arts scene in DC. I wish it was as rich as I know it can be.
Is there a specific piece that you feel particular proud of? That you feel is particularly defining?
James Luna said that performance art is one of the most important mediums to Indigenous people. It allows for real-time relationships and real dialouge. It’s not as abstract; you can actually illustrate through your movement, what you’re wearing, what you’re saying.
“The Last American Indian on Earth” was really very much about that, because I was taking performance art to the general public, rather than a gallery. It was the Wild West, but I was counting on that. I was proud of that piece because it did exactly what I knew it could do. I’ve been Indigenous my whole life, and I worked at the Smithsomian Museum of the American Indian. Those two experiences helped me know how I was going to be engaged in public. But it was also about the engagement people have with Indigenous people. And it became really interesting to illustrate that. To add a face to that, to have real-world examples and stories.
Like the woman who came up to me and was offended by how I was dressed. And then she found out that I was Indigenous, and she basically dumped a bucket of Romanticism on herself. She was so excited that a real Indigenous person was standing in front of her, she started touching me and cooing. It’s interesting how her reaction changed from arbitrary offence, to this outpouring of Romantic misconceptions about Indigenous people. The relationship between Indians and non-Indians is very complex.
“Redskin” was really difficult, and I was proud of that in the same way that I imagine a marathon runner is proud of the sacrifice that they give. You run that whole distance and it’s exhausting and your whole body hurts, but there’s a sense of accomplishment at the end of it. For me, that was being able to give something of myself to illustrate another aspect of American culture.
“Sometimes it feels like standing in an empty room and screaming at the top of your lungs.”
How does the nature of your art change when it’s collaborative vs. individually created?
It’s funny that you ask that, because the collaborative effort on “Last American Indian on Earth” tore apart at the seems. The guy I was working with took the film that he taped and created his own piece. Without my permission, without my involvement. My endgame was to create a film, too — just not from the perespective of a white dude telling my story. He spent a lot of time on my family and family history, but he missed the point of being a modern Indigenous person in this day and age without needing the story to go along with it: the suffering Indigenous person struggling with identity and all this crap. It killed my film because of it, and now I’m very careful about who I work with.
The truth is, with these images, certain people in America cannot help themselves. They react a certain way, they respond a certain way, they feel kinship to it, and ultimately a sense of ownership. American culture doesn’t say “hey, there’s a sovereign group of people over here, we should hold help them up and help them carry themselves.” Instead, it’s “hey look, these people over here are suffering, and we’re going to tell their story for them.”
It takes away from any Indigenous person that wants to tell their own story. “For the Last American Indian on Earth,” when I took a step back, the whole piece is about identity and the way we’re perceived in the public. Ultimately, I had a white guy take my work and tell my story — it’s sort of the most poetic ending imaginable.
When I did “Redskin,” any person that I had working, I paid them. I needed to retain as much control as possible. Unfortunately, that’s the Western world we live in. I didn’t want it to be that way with this other dude. The last two, three years have been amazing. From doing “The Last American Indian on Earth,” to speaking at the Smithsonian, to going to the Change the Name rally in Minnesota and talking to five thousand people, there have been so many incredible things that have happened. The documenting that could have come from that—it would have been incredibly rich. I don’t think it’s my loss, because I do okay with that. But he said he understood what I was doing, and he clearly didn’t. It’s sad.
“American culture doesn’t say ‘hey, there’s a sovereign group of people over here, we should hold help them up and help them carry themselves.’ Instead, it’s ‘hey look, these people over here are suffering, and we’re going to tell their story for them.’”
“Redskin” is about the name of the Washington professional football team. In recent years, it feels like the tide has been turning with regard to popular opinion on the name. Do you think we’ll see a change soon?
Look at same-sex marriage. The response to same-sex marriage ten years ago is not what you see today. There’s always going to be people who are adversarial to change, particularly change that challenges their superiority. That stuff will always exist.
But as far as public perception goes, it’s changing. There are reporters in the press who are really committed to following this story. What people forget is that it’s not just simple as changing the name. There’s a man that holds all the rights to the team, and unless he has a change of heart, it’s not going to change. I think that’s possible, because were talking about civil rights, equal rights, human rights. Eventually, people will see that we are standing up and fighting for the rights of Indigenous people. We’re seeing more fans of the team realizing that there’s something really negative attached to the team they love, and that it’s time to move on and just watch football.
Have you ever been to Cherokee, NC?
I have never been, but apparently everyone is Cherokee, so it’s basically like I’m there already.
Pan-Indian Romantic Comedy, Gregg’s latest performance piece, will appear at Woolly on Sunday, February 15 at 5pm. You can reserve a seat for free here. To find out more about Gregg and his work, visit his website, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram @greggdeal