Though it’s not widely known, Boba Fett is an important figure in Native American art. At least, he is in the art of Ryan Singer. Originally from Tuba City, Ariz., in Navajo country, the Albuquerque artist is working on a portrait of the infamous Star Wars bounty hunter, armed and gunning for the viewer, alongside a wolf haloed by the Fett insignia.
Home to the largest powwow in the country, Albuquerque is also an emerging crossroads for nontraditional Native American artists like Ryan Singer and his cousin Monty Singer.
Monty Singer says pop icons belong in the vernacular of a Diné artist: “We’re a newer generation, influenced by Star Wars and punk music.”
Coinciding with the 27th Annual Gathering of Nations are two art exhibitions featuring contemporary work by Native artists: Wrestling with Paint at the 3rd Street Arts space will present the work of Monty and Ryan Singer. Black Market Goods will host a battery of Native photographers, animators, fashion designers, and graffiti and visual artists for its annual show, Injunuity. Both exhibitions open on Friday, April 23.
“I don’t like to conform. That’s what art is about—freedom. That’s what being an artist is. The most important thing: Speak your own truth.”
From Ryan Singer’s perspective, the expression of modern culture and diversity is every bit as important as upholding traditions. “We’re all going through this whole modern world,” he says.
Ryan’s work is richly varied and includes images of Wile E. Coyote and pop art cowgirls taking aim, as well as abstract paintings, traditional portraits and even comic-style pen-and-ink drawings.
“I don’t like to conform,” he says. “That’s what art is about—freedom. That’s what being an artist is. The most important thing: Speak your own truth.”
Like his cousin, Monty Singer makes art that’s a far cry from traditional Navajo artwork. While some of his paintings feature Navajo rugs, the rugs serve as backdrops for icon Betty Page in full smolder.
He says Native artists fulfill a critical role when they explore popular culture. “We’ve survived attempted genocide, relocation, the Long Walk. The thing that’s going to kill us faster is the predominant popular culture. It’s hard for Native values to compete with Lady Gaga. It’s not about blame," he adds. "It’s just what’s happening.”
“When I went to Seattle, they were blown away on the idea of what Native American art should be and that I just wasn’t following a set path.”
By working with new images and subject matter, the Singers and other Native artists maintain that they are freeing themselves from what can be a stifling creative environment.
“New Mexico suffers from the stranglehold of the Southwest arts theme. There’s a whole other scene that involves a whole other palette,” says Monty.
Mia Allee-Jumbo, a young artist originally from Chinle, Ariz., and co-owner of Black Market Goods art space, says that’s especially true for Native Americans.
“We get pigeonholed a lot,” she says.
Also an exhibitor at the Injunuity show, Allee-Jumbo crafts theater sets, designs clothing and creates abstract visual art. “There are typical Native artists, but we’re able to do other things than squash-blossom necklaces.”
While traditional Navajo pigments—rusty reds and dusty yellows that come from natural plant dyes—influence her work, so do Rothko’s color fields and Monet’s dappled pastels.
Black Market Goods founder Josh Jones, also from Chinle, says Injunuity is “a celebration of Native artists who don’t adhere to a style of art that’s predefined for us.”
And Albuquerque is a welcoming place for Native artists interested in new styles. “Santa Fe traditional art sells,” Allee-Jumbo says. “Here we’re incorporating new styles and making them more popular, more exposed. Native Americans are coming to Albuquerque so they can have this new voice.”
Jones agrees. “When I went to Seattle, they were blown away on the idea of what Native American art should be and that I just wasn’t following a set path.”
Jones also lists punk rock as one of his influences. The piece that confounded Seattle viewers was called “Rockapelli,” a kokopelli image painted as a punk rocker screaming into a microphone.
As more Native artists press beyond the boundaries of tradition, the concept of what counts as Native American art transfigures as well. “Art can change society,” Allee-Jumbo says, “and can change perspectives.”