Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Buffalo Bill and The Indians on the Beach

Last Sunday I was walking my dog on Ocean Beach, near the Cliff House, in San Francisco. As usual it was a foggy, dreary morning. I could see some weird "gathering" far up ahead so I made a beeline for it. As I got closer I couldnt believe my eyes. It was an huge art installation made more surprising because I hadnt heard anything about it.Stretched out along the beach, in all their colorful splendor, was a huge contingent of Native Americans on horseback! Slightly larger than life and brightly painted and decorated with buckskin, feathers, bells and beads, they were even more beautiful given the backdrop - the muted grey Pacific Ocean. But it didn't make any sense.
There was an information tent along with this installation so I checked it out to learn more. The artist is Thom Ross. He specializes in large figurative installations depicting historic American scenes that live in our minds and imaginations.
This particular scene - I was VERY surprised to learn - was a recreation of an actual photograph taken on the very same spot in 1902. It is the troupe of the Buffalo Bill Cody Wild West Show. Buffalo Bill is right in the middle front. This puts the installation and imagery into a whole new context. It isnt just a frivolous and - some could argue - racist depiction of Indians. It really happened!Now, of course, the minute I saw this I knew it would not be without controversy. One treads lightly - and rightly so - where images of Native Americans are concerned. But I doubt there is anyone who doesnt know the truth about the treatment and decimation of the peoples who met the settlers and soldiers as the American West was "tamed", so to speak. I think we are well aware that this image of the Indian - resplendent in war bonnet and feathers - is more a cartoon than the truth. And by the time that 1902 photo was taken, the Native American population had been destroyed by many means and these people were relegated to putting on a "show" for the curious and ignorant. That said, there is no question that this imagery which lives on in our hearts and minds is beautiful and stirring.Each figure is cut out of 3/4" plywood, numbered and signed by the artist. The fact that these pieces are flat adds a philosophical touch: they are as flat and false as the "truth" the try to depict - these weren't proud people equally sharing the glory, money and fame from this Wild West Show. They were relegated to serving as court jesters by this time. The artist says "the meaning of the installation must be determined by the individual viewer; what they feel when they view the piece will be the meaning."
To see more of his work, or communicate with him, go to his website: www.thomrossart.com


Stacy Alexander said...

Whoa! That is uber cool! (and this, coming from a card-carrying Cherokee!)

Thanks for sharing this, Kim.


delia said...

When I first saw the photo of the Cliff House I got a flashback to my childhood...I spent a great deal of time there, as well at Playland....but when I saw the display, it really sparked my interest as an artist! This is amazing and so much work went into that...

I love what artist says "The meaning behind the installation must be determined by the individual viewer; what they feel when they view the piece will be the meaning"
Well said and Very true indeed...