I know you are, but what am i? at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art focuses on the figure to launch discussions about identity, fluidity, and body positivity.
i know you are, but what am i? (De)Framing Identity and the Body
June 24, 2022–January 7, 2023
Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Salt Lake City
No matter where one stands in the gallery, “I’m a bad Indian” ricochets loud and clear inside the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art while viewing i know you are, but what am i? (De)Framing Identity and the Body. The group exhibition of nearly twenty artists reclaims self-identity and the body from the clutches of racism and gender stereotypes.
The source is a black-and-white recording session video of Bad Indian (2021) by Dead Pioneers, a punk trio fronted by Gregg Deal (Pyramid Lake Paiute). Deal—in spoken word vocals that are high in the mix, like an early release on SST Records—recounts encountering identity fallacies in school and an unceasing frustration that his tribe’s name is incessantly mispronounced. Deal says that he’s a “bad Indian” because he doesn’t know how, among a litany of other racist stereotypes, to ride a horse or string a bow and arrow.
Instead of interpreting Deal’s words as vengeful or morose, his work and other pieces in the show project feelings of reclamation and say-it-out-loud-and-proud empowerment.
Hakeem Olayinka’s She Looks Good in Red (2021), an oil and acrylic on canvas, shows a figure in all red against a stark red background reminiscent of the cover for Aaliyah’s 2001 self-titled “Red Album.” A mask shrouds a Black face that appears uneasy. Coupled with the awkward body language, the painting by the Nigerian American artist comments on Black invisibility and vulnerability.
Another exceptional work comes from Madrona Redhawk (Choctaw, Creek, Shawnee) and her audio-absent video Untitled I (2020-22). The Las Vegas, Nevada artist donates her face as a canvas in violent and mischievous applications, whether smearing paint on her cheeks and nose with an iron or getting her mug rammed by a painted bicycle tire. Shot in a TikTok orientation and looped every thirty seconds or so, it’s an addictive watch that challenges long-held beauty standards.
While works by Korean artist Ken Gun Min, Denver multidisciplinary artist Suchitra Mattai, and recent Utah transplant Amber Tutwiler inspire hope for social change, other artworks don’t quite connect and instead feel smushed into the misunderstood-identity theme. Shoehorning is the last thing these artists—and all marginalized people—deserve.
But overall, the UMOCA exhibition—heavy on unfiltered themes and viscous topics but turned-down in presentation—beautifully hits hard like the bike tire in Redhawk’s video.