David Bradley, a Chippewa painter, sculptor, printmaker, ceramist, and jeweler born in Eureka, California, and raised in Minneapolis, has been a driving force in New Mexico’s art scene for more than 40 years. His paintings — which are often peopled with crowds of real and imaginary faces, many of them denizens of Santa Fe — address issues of cultural appropriation and Native social and political justice, merging imagery from pop culture and art history. The characters in his works play out their dramas in a Southwestern landscape — inside iconic Santa Fe venues such as El Farol, on the Plaza during Indian Market, and at Fort Marcy beneath the specter of Zozobra.
Bradley was born into poverty and was in and out of foster homes before being adopted by a white family. The racism toward Native Americans that he encountered in the Midwest fueled his activism and became a part of the subject matter of his art: satirical paintings that draw from real events and experiences — including his personal history — and recast them as comedies of errors. “I have always had a very active, absurd sense of humor,” he told Pasatiempo in 2015. “I ignored people telling me that humor has no place in serious art.”
Bradley, who was nominated for the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts by Della Warrior, director of the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, isn’t afraid to put his own portrait into his paintings, along with the likenesses of friends and acquaintances who, for better or for worse, are in these dramas together. His targets are vanity, artifice, and the co-opting of Native art and culture — something he saw firsthand as a participant in 1980s Indian Markets. At that time, the market was attracting frauds who were passing off their work as authentic Native arts. In response, Bradley helped found the Native American Artists Association to combat poseurs. The group was instrumental in getting the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act passed in 1990. “For over 500 years, Indian people have had our land and nearly everything else stolen from us,” he told Pasatiempo. “Now that Indian identity has become a very marketable commodity, they want to steal that from us, too. I was one of the few who stood up and said, ‘No! We are not going to lay down and let that happen.’ ”
Bradley was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 2011 but has continued to paint and sculpt. A retrospective of his work, Indian Country: The Art of David Bradley, opened at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in 2015. Bradley’s work shows in town at Blue Rain Gallery and has been in exhibitions at the Portland Art Museum, the George Eastman House Museum, the National Museum of the American Indian, and many more. His art is on display at the Governor’s Gallery in the exhibit honoring this year’s awardees.