Back in 2007, I wrote an article about Bently Spang, a Northern Cheyenne artist and activist, and his upcoming events at Colorado College; one was his art show Cyberskins, and the other, a performance art event called the Tekcno Powwow II: The Return of the Funk.
Spang was doing some shopping at the dollar store while we spoke, and he casually informed me he was looking for Mardi Gras beads, after having found a gold lamé Elvis get-up to wear to the powwow. Being the shy, budding writer, I was mostly perplexed by him, and had no idea what to expect when I went to the pow wow later.
It was, in fact, the most amazing, unique performance art experience I've ever seen. Nestled in the gym at CC, Spang organized a light and sound show with a DJ and a traditional Native American drum circle. He rounded up traditional dancers and the B-boy group Soul Mechanics. Spang was indeed dressed up in his cheap Elvis suit and cowboy hat, his face painted, and he emceed the event like it was just a party. He made jokes, things went wrong (though not for long), and eventually all the performers started riffing off of one another, borrowing dance moves and battling. In the end, Spang invited the whole crowd in the gym to dance.
It was a magic sort of thing that just doesn't sound as good in writing as it really was. It's a vibe, I guess, and one that sincerely meant to engage the community, without being trite.
In any case, Spang's efforts are not going unnoticed by the national media. Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal ran an article about new art shows that break stereotypes. Spang's "War Shirt" sculptures were mentioned as part of the Denver Art Museum's groundbreaking new installation of its vast Native American art collection. The WSJ lauded the DAM for its reinstallation:
Its completely reconceived 23,000-square-foot installation features about 90 works created since 1950, part of an entirely new display of 700 highlights from one of the finest, deepest collections of such material in the country—some 18,000 pieces, collected over the past 85 years. Organized into nine geographic areas, it jumbles old and new in provocative, sometimes exasperating ways.
However, these changes are not without controversy on a larger scale, says the article. Institutions such as the National Museum of the American Indian in the Smithsonian have been criticized for being too polemical and political in their aim to educate the public about the scale of destruction that wiped out Native American nations.
In my experience with Spang, the role of history was not diminished. But Spang called for his people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and for the rest of the public to become more educated about Native American culture. Even if it meant trotting out in a glittery boxer's robe emblazoned with "Fighting Cheyenne" on the back.
As we wrote back then, "Spang includes everyone in his buoyant parade."