The centerpiece of Wendy Red Star’s exhibition at New Jersey’s Newark Museum, “Wendy Red Star: A Scratch on the Earth,” is a sweat lodge. It’s not a ceremonial sweat lodge per se—that would be complicated for a lot of reasons. What Red Star has built is an artwork that she calls Sweat Lodge, a geodesic dome covered with Pendleton blankets and sleeping bags and various cut-and-sewn fabrics.
Like a sweat lodge, it’s a work you can enter into, literally, as you undo the sleeping bag zipper that serves as the threshold to the piece at the very center of the museum’s new special exhibition gallery. And here’s one of the best things about it: It really does call to you—not just by its appearance, but by a certain sound that haunts the building’s second floor. It’s a sound that is, improbably, coming from inside Sweat Lodge—and is (we are not making this up!) the wind.
“Growing up, that sound was everywhere,” Red Star, who grew up on the Crow Reservation in southern Montana, told me on a recent tour of the exhibition—a retrospective, midcareer survey from the Portland, Oregon–based artist, her first on the East Coast. An enrolled member of the Apsáalooke (Crow) Tribe, Red Star first hit the art scene as a photographer with the series of self-portraits that opens “A Scratch on the Earth,” and she described how those came about at a time when she was at UCLA in 2006. “A lot of my work comes from missing home,” she said. “At that point, I was in a big city and I was missing Crows. So I thought, Oh, I’ll go to a museum! I went to the natural history museum, and I came through the dinosaur exhibitions on my way into the Native American galleries, and I just got the feeling that they were saying we were part of the past.”
She was majoring in sculpture at the time, but she used a camera to make photographs of herself almost as if she were an exhibition at a similar museum. The backdrops are static and wallpaper-like, the animals ultra-fake—toy birds, an inflatable horse, a cut-out deer—and Red Star is at the center of them all, dressed in ceremonial Crow clothing that’s as contemporary as last month’s runway offerings. These four photographs, titled Four Seasons, established her as a smart and ironic but always beautiful multimedia artist, one who is flipping tropes with pictures and annotations and even textiles that often use Crow colors (among others) to converse with the past in a way that is fluent in today’s cultural landscape.
Opposite from Four Seasons is another definitional work, this one created for the Newark exhibition, called Map of the Allotted Lands of the Crow Reservation, Montana—A Tribute to Many Good Women. To appreciate it, a little history helps. In 1887, the U.S. government moved to divide up and allot all tribal land—giving it to men, despite the fact that the Crow (like many other tribes, Red Star notes) was a matriarchal society. The U.S. imposed a patriarchy, in other words. Red Star enlarged the 1887 allotment map and crowdsourced images of Crow women, attaching them to the old map.
“When I used to be on Facebook, I contacted Crow women who wanted to be involved and asked if they would send me some pictures,” she recalled. The finished piece, the gallery text notes, “connects contemporary women to the physical spaces from which their ancestors were displaced and honors the matrilineal structure of the Crow tribe’s pre-conquest history.” It also looks beautiful—the contemporary photos breathing life into the black-and-white grid. Among the list of names on the allotment map is the name Red Star, which she pointed out.
“Actually, this is my articulation of how I got my name,” she said. “People say to me, ‘Red Star, that’s nice—how did you get that name?’ It came from my grandfather, and he was around in the allotment time, and his name is right here.”
The side gallery highlights more of her work with photography, along with works in textiles and sculptures made in 2014 using, as their model, sketches made by the Crow delegation sent to Washington, D.C. in 1880—in particular, sketches following a visit to the zoo. (Red Star sent the sketches to an Australian company that makes stuffed toys from children’s drawings.) Then there are her annotations of the photographs made by the U.S. government in the post–Civil War years, when tribes were invited to D.C. to negotiate treaties. She annotates them in red pen, the red ink feeling like a reference to violence but also a correction of the government archive—in this case, an archive used, like so many photographic archives of the 19th century, to erase Native presence from the land.
Before I left the museum, I asked Red Star if she might take me and the other visitor and curators into Sweat Lodge. She agreed, and we stepped inside to see not the inside of a sweat lodge, or what I had imagined the inside of this work to be, but a 360-degree film made by Red Star and Amelia Winger-Bearskin, an artist and organizer who works with cultural communities and counts herself among the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) of the Seneca-Cayuga Nation of Oklahoma. (Winger-Bearskin is also the founder of Stupid Hackathon, which is, on a less cerebral level, awesome. See: “artisanal Snapchat filter.”) When you sit down in Sweat Lodge, you look around to see Red Star’s home on the Crow Reservation, and while we watched the video as it looped, Red Star herself pointed out landmarks from her childhood. “Those are the Pryor Mountains,” she said at one point. When the video took the viewer almost underground into a panorama of sandstone depressions, Red Star said, “When I was a kid, we would play hide-and-seek in there.”
The video is titled Monsters, a reference to stories told about this particular area. Red Star tells the story in-depth in the show’s catalog, but suffice to say the monsters are a reference to the people who care for this Crow land and protect it. Even for someone returning to the land to make a video, the place can apparently be daunting.
“We had one pretty terrifying experience,” Red Star said. At one point, one of the two dogs they were with (you can see them in the film) began to bark aggressively at something that Red Star and Winger-Bearskin could not see, though they had video of the dog freaking out. “We packed up our stuff,” Red Star told us. “We were pretty shaken.”
Soon after, a camera disappeared—and then, in an impossible place, was recovered. Red Star and Winger-Bearskin were still haunted by the course of events when they went to edit the work, which played simultaneously on several video cameras inside the shelter. “The video has to be stitched together. And I’ll just say that it has to go up into the cloud to be stitched together—and that footage of the dog barking? It went up to the cloud, but it never came back.”