The Native Guide Project by Colorado-based artist Anna Tsouhlarakis (Navajo, Creek, Greek) comprises twenty-three phrases on billboard vinyl and Instagram posts that counter stereotypes of Native people and Native art.
SCOTTSDALE, AZ—“It’s great how you acknowledge that Native Americans are still here.”
So reads the text on a large-scale banner currently hanging on the exterior of Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, facing the Old Town arts district where Native art coexists with art romanticizing the Old West.
Created using white billboard vinyl and black, all-caps Helvetica text, the piece is part of The Native Guide Project conceived by Anna Tsouhlarakis (Navajo, Creek, Greek), a Colorado-based interdisciplinary artist whose work counters stereotypes of Native people and Native art.
Inside the museum, Tsouhlarakis’s banner reading “That’s right, Native Americans have dreams too” hangs next to a small monitor where viewers see phrases she’s shared through her anonymous @thatnativeartist Instagram account.
Tsouhlarakis launched The Native Guide Project in 2019, while participating in an artist-in-residence program at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. “I became really interested in what it means to guide somebody to an intentional outcome, and how museums get the reactions they hope for from their visitors,” says Tsouhlarakis.
While considering the myriad pedagogies she’s studied, plus decades of teaching students from kindergarten to graduate school, Tsouhlarakis called to mind the responsive classroom model with its focus on positive reinforcement—then wrote the twenty-three statements that form the foundation of the project.
“The initial idea was that these were positive reinforcements, but I knew they could be read as snarly or sarcastic,” she recalls. “I say they’re non-confrontational, but some people see them that way.”
Tsouhlarakis chose a minimal look for The Native Guide Project, making the text neutral in both gender and style. It’s an approach that’s consistent with her overall aesthetic. “I’m very concise when I’m making work and I don’t need it to be frilly; I like to get to the point.”
In naming the project, Tsouhlarakis wanted to be sure people knew or insinuated that it was meant to be a literal guide, but she also wanted the title to speak to the women who’ve guided people throughout history, such as Malinche, Sacagawea, and Pocahontas.
So far, she’s created three iterations of the project.
The Scottsdale version, part of the SMoCA exhibition Language in Times of Miscommunication (on view through August 27, 2023), is more general and open-ended in nature, reflecting the original composition of the project, compared with what she’s put together for Columbus, Ohio and St. Louis, Missouri, where the project is imbued with geographic specificity.
For The Native Guide Project: Columbus, which opened February 11, 2023, and continues through July 9, 2023, at Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University, the artist speaks to the city’s name, mounds built in the region by ancient Native peoples, the Cleveland baseball team that only recently nixed its offensive name and mascot, and experiences of forced migration.
Another iteration will be part of the Counterpublic civic exhibition of contemporary art taking place this year from April 15 through July 15 in St. Louis, where Tsouhlarakis’s work will center Sugarloaf Mound, an ancient site for the region’s Osage people.
Themes of Native identity and expression run throughout Tsouhlarakis’s larger body of work, which includes sculpture, installation, performance, and video. Although she makes text, Tsouhlarakis doesn’t consider herself a text-based artist.
“I’m adamant that I’m a Native artist,” says Tsouhlarakis, who recently won an unrestricted $20,000 grant from the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation. “I want to redefine the boundaries of what Native American art is and can be.”