Indigenous artist Brad Kahlhamer explores nomadic existence and hybrid identity in Swap Meet exhibition at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.
Brad Kahlhamer: Swap Meet
February 26–October 9, 2022
Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art
A twenty-one-foot-long trailer inside of the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art anchors the exhibition Swap Meet, which explores Brad Kahlhamer’s hybridized identity, nomadic sensibilities, and relationship with the Southwest. Purchased at a swap meet in Mesa, Arizona, the trailer is filled with eclectic items collected or created by the artist, including feathers, drawings, taxidermy, photographs, doll-like figures made with found objects, and more.
Based in both Mesa and New York City, the artist has spent more than three decades creating art that reflects his own existential uncertainties, which are rooted in his personal origin story and its broader historical, social, and cultural contexts.
Born in 1956 to Native American parents in Tucson, Arizona, Kahlhamer was adopted by a German-American family. To this day, he doesn’t know the specifics of his ancestral heritage or have a tribal affiliation. His identity, and the community he creates for himself, are in constant flux.
Much like swap meets where people exchange ideas, stories, and goods, Kahlhamer’s art practice reflects a wide range of human experiences. Here, one sees evidence of the perpetual dialogue between his inner life and exterior worlds.
The trailer embodies his nomadic mindset, and time spent traveling myriad geographic and cultural landscapes. Pairs of chairs inside the trailer, and a pop-up table outside it, signal the ways conversations are critical to his creative process and ontological journey.
Similarly, a wooden stage built out from the trailer affirms the artist’s embrace of music as a form of expression and connection and alludes to his experiences as a songwriter and touring musician. It’s being used for periodic live performances during the exhibition’s run through October 9, 2022.
Swap Meet also includes drawings, paintings, sculptures, and sketchbooks that highlight Kahlhamer’s distinct use of text, imagery, and expressive gestural marks. Recurring text and imagery include animals, the word “ugh,” and specific locations such as Brooklyn, Gallup, New Mexico, Mesa, and Tucson.
Several of Kahlhamer’s artworks echo forms that are prevalent in Indigenous culture, such as katsina dolls, ledger drawings, and dream catchers.
At one end of the gallery, a display case contains several Nomadic Studio Sketchbooks (2020-22) that illuminate Kahlhamer’s longtime practice of filling sketchbooks with text and imagery reflecting his nomadic adventures and imaginings.
At the opposite end, the artist’s large-scale, circle-shaped kinetic sculpture titled Super Catcher (2014) hangs suspended in the air. It’s installed next to Koko in the Afternoon (2019), a wood and paint Kokopelli sculpture that speaks to the commodification of Indigenous culture.
Kahlhamer’s indictments of cultural appropriation and reductive romanticism are especially impactful because the museum is located in a tourism enclave characterized by Old West sensibilities and the commercialization of Native art.
Other exhibition highlights include Bowery Nation + Hawk + Eagle, a 2018 mixed-media installation that includes a tall totemic figure with long braids made of rope, shelves holding several figures inspired by katsina dolls encountered years ago at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, and eight drawings hung salon-style.
Throughout, one sees the influence of not only Native American iconography and Abstract Expressionism, but also punk music, street art, alternative cartoons, and graphic design. The surplus of disjointed lines and figurative objects suggests creative chaos with transformative powers.
Swap Meet is curated by Natasha Boas, an independent curator based in San Francisco and Paris, who has clearly trained her eye on the artist’s relationship to the desert Southwest and embraced his sophisticated multi-dimensional storytelling. (Kahlhamer is also exhibiting a separate body of work at the Tucson Museum of Art through September 25, 2022.)
She has included primarily new works, including Zombie Botanicals, comprising figures made with decayed saguaro cactus, and Rock Shop (Geological Studies), which consists of found rocks painted with various symbols and designs. The latter speaks to petroglyphs and pictographs created by the region’s prehistoric Hohokam, the ubiquity of rocks and gems in swap meet culture, and the pet rocks of 1970s pop culture. Installed together in a loose configuration that suggests a desert garden or gathering place, these figures and rocks join the evolving tribe that Kahlhamer continues to shape for himself over time.
His body of work takes on additional layers of meaning when considered in the context of Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Black Lives Matter movement, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the escalating climate crisis. Even so, it’s the backdrop of the borderlands that resonates most profoundly.
Kahlhamer’s creative practice serves as a powerful critique of colonizer culture, from its conceptual underpinnings such as Manifest Destiny to its concrete policies proliferating illegal immigrant narratives.
Swap Meet prompts critical conversations about the long history of Indigenous peoples traversing land now separated by the U.S.-Mexico border, and the ways their movement created rich hybridizations of identity and culture. But it also signals the artist’s own evolution towards a more socially-engaged practice, in which the Swap Meet Trailer (2022) serves as a vehicle for community and cultural exchange.
Brad Kahlhamer: Swap Meet is scheduled to remain on display through October 9, 2022, at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, 7374 East 2nd Street in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Clarification 4/22/2022: In response to reader questions about Kahlhamer’s Indigenous heritage, SMoCA provided the following statement.
“Brad Kahlhamer has long been positioned within a Native American identity through exhibitions at institutions such as the [IAIA] Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, the Heard Museum, and LOOM Indigenous Art Gallery. Born to Indigenous parents and adopted into a non-Native family, Kahlhamer’s life and work straddle this nationless identity space.” — Jennifer McCabe, director and chief curator of Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art