Science fiction as a pop culture reference is nothing new. Nerds everywhere rarely waste an opportunity to ask HAL, the computerized villain from 2001: A Space Odyssey, to “open the pod bay doors,” even if they’re really just talking to the automatic doors at their local grocery store. But the references only grow more obscure from there. That’s the isolating price of true fandom. But some Native artists who embrace references to popular culture have a bit of a history with science fiction, derived in some cases from keen interests in comics and visionary art forms. It seemed fitting when Star Wars: A New Hope got translated into Diné in 2013, the first major Hollywood film to be dubbed in a Native language. The role of science fiction in popular culture approaches that of myth. It’s a contemporary vision of a world looking to the future, and in Now Is the Time, it’s a vision sometimes gleaned through the prism of the past.
For instance, artist Rory Wakemup’s aluminum stormtrooper costume Buffalo Thunder Trooper, created as a costume for a performance piece, bears familiar aspects of the Star Wars’ foot soldier’s regalia, like the stormtrooper helmet, but he’s added a feather headdress, perhaps inspired by the traditional Chippewa dress that forms part of his Native heritage. The irony is that the headdress is reserved for the chief or the warrior for acts of bravery, and the stormtrooper is a mindless drone, a slave to the Empire with no will of his own. It isn’t much of a stretch to see Buffalo Thunder Trooper as a commentary on the misrepresentation of Native peoples in a lot of non-Native art. Similarly, Jonathan Loretto’s Troy and Joey, two Native bobble-head figures bearing lightsabers, inspired by the toy figures that grace many a car dashboard, are rendered in clay and bear a resemblance to more traditional Cochití figurines.
But Now Is the Time, which includes works by Wakemup and Loretto, as well as Natalie Ball, Gerald Clarke Jr., Jonathan Thunder, Joe Fedderson, and Drew Michael, is not a Star Wars-themed exhibit. The works on view are not all inspired by the world of pop-culture fandom, either. Michael’s painted carving Heart of Understanding, for example, is about listening to the knowledge of the past, according to his artist statement, in order to remain open to the transmission of transcendental truths. Fedderson’s monotypes reference enduring Native culture from a contemporary standpoint, where automobiles, buildings, and high voltage towers seem at odds with cultural practices steeped in tradition such as travel by hand-carved canoe. Some of these forms converge in a single composition that Fedderson renders in a style that resembles ancient petroglyph designs and graffiti art at the same time, begging comparisons between the two, or a recognition that mark-making as a means of expression is as vital today as it was in the past. That awareness of history is key, perhaps, to understanding the exhibit on the whole. Whether these artists are looking forward to what will be, or back to what was, they are speaking to the present moment. Now is the time.