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Destiny's child 

With multimedia artwork, Bently Spang puts Native Americans out front and in control

click to enlarge Bently Spang displays his cyberskin, a commentary on - Native Americans future.
  • Bently Spang displays his cyberskin, a commentary on Native Americans future.

The story of Native American history often stops at the tribes' relocation to reservations. Most everything beforehand is tragic, and everything afterward is assumed to be continuing recovery.

"'Indian' and 'future' usually don't wind up in the same sentence," says Northern Cheyenne artist Bently Spang.

Spang aims to bring the Native American image into the future. Last Friday, he convened Tekcno Powwow II: The Return of the Funk, a performance powwow at Colorado College. Now, he's in the process of taking video installations, sculpture and photography from the powwow and putting together Bently Spang: Cyberskins. In addition to documentation of The Return of the Funk, the show will feature other pieces from earlier Spang exhibitions. Like the powwow, the gallery show is tailored to the specific occasion.

Many works include Spang himself; his photographic self-portraits as the iconic, blue-outfitted chief of the future, work as both visual and performance pieces. Like other Spang shows, Cyberskins will feature innovation and improvisation, not only as an artistic style, but as a part of the artist's heritage.

"[Native American culture] has always been very dynamic and adaptable," says Coburn Gallery curator Jessica Hunter Larsen. "This is not something new. They have always been responsive to change."

This adaptability created the powwow ceremony in the first place. It was only after the relocation of millions of native peoples to reservations that powwows were formed as large social gatherings in which tribes shared dancing, music and their traditions. Their very purpose was to keep the cultures alive, then and now.

"It was a way for tribes to preserve their heritage," says Larsen. "It's a modern phenomenon."

In this same way, the term "cyberskin" was born. Spang coined the title, an appropriation of the slur "redskin," to show the audience that Native Americans are in full control of their destiny. For the powwow, he created his own dance costume, giving it an expressively futuristic flair.

"If we create our own outfits, our own skins," he says, "then that will ensure our survival in the future."

Spang takes this tradition into the future by infusing modern rap, hip-hop and techno music to the powwow, then throwing modern dancers such as local b-boy group Soul Mechanics into the mix. Everything is improvised to a certain degree, much like traditional powwows and, also, like breakdancing.

"The structure of powwow and breakdancing are the same," says Larsen. "It's structured improvisation."

With all the intertwining of cultures, the line between them blurs. Common interests become shared identities. Like many artists, Spang trusts his shows will help spark a dialogue one that extends our understanding of Native American culture beyond yesterday's tragedies and today's struggles to survive.

"Maybe something can come out of that," he suggests. "Maybe some kind of resolution."

Bently Spang: Cyberskins
CC's Coburn Gallery,
902 N. Cascade Ave.
Runs through Dec. 12; Opening reception, Friday, Oct. 12, 4:30-7 p.m. Gallery open 12:30-7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday
Free; call 227-8263 or visit coloradocollege.edu/coburn for more.

  • With multimedia artwork, Bently Spang puts Native Americans out front and in control

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