Jeffrey Gibson: When Fire Is Applied to a Stone It Cracks When Fire Is Applied to a Stone It Cracks, the immersive installation on view in these galleries, is artist Jeffrey Gibson’s response to the Brooklyn Museum’s invitation to create an exhibition of Native American objects from the Museum’s extensive collection. His selection, shown alongside his own work, presents a range of art-historical traditions, illuminating the role they play in shaping his practice. Of Choctaw and Cherokee descent, Gibson was born in Colorado in 1972. His approach to art-making can be characterized as hybrid and cosmopolitan, likely informed by his upbringing in the United States, Europe, and Asia. Resisting static, preconceived notions of what people believe Native American art looks like, Gibson sees himself on a continuum of Indigenous art, a category he regards as modern, innovative, and global—a living culture reflected in vibrant communities active across the continent.
Gibson collaborated with historian Dr. Christian Ayne Crouch to construct the organizational framework of the exhibition. Unfolding in three galleries, it showcases the breadth of Gibson’s practice, which includes painting on canvas, hide, and walls; sculpture that sits on the floor and hangs from the ceiling; embellished garments that are both flat textiles and items intended to be worn by individuals; headgear; and ceramic vessels. He uses techniques and materials that are rooted in the histories of Native American art, including hide, beadwork, jingles, and clay. At the same time, he draws from other artistic traditions, such as stained glass and oil painting, as well as from popular culture, appropriating musical lyrics and incorporating elements of psychedelia in his work.
In keeping with his multidisciplinary practice and interests, Gibson chose a wide range of works from the Museum’s holdings of Native American art, American art, and photography, as well as from the Brooklyn Museum Library Special Collections and Archives. In the entrance gallery, set against a vibrant wall mural of his own design, Gibson highlights Charles Cary Rumsey’s Dying Indian (circa 1904), alongside other representations of Native Americans by non-Native artists. In an adjacent gallery, also with highly saturated murals covering the walls, Gibson’s paintings on hide and on canvas with beadwork frames, sculptures, garments, and headpieces mingle with parfleche bags, beaded whimsies, and patchwork dresses by other Native artists. The third gallery foregrounds material from the Brooklyn Museum’s Archives, which sheds light on the early twentieth-century formation of the institution’s Native American collection by Stewart Culin, the Museum’s Curator of Ethnology from 1903 to 1929. Although Gibson and Crouch acknowledge Culin’s profound role in establishing the collection, the material on view centers Indigenous subjects and culture, rejecting the exclusion and erasure of Indigenous histories and stories that had been fundamental to the narratives that institutions promote. Instead, this show reflects the continuity and endurance of Indigenous communities and artists.
Through the combination of collection objects and his own work in the three spaces, Gibson encourages visitors to rethink long-held preconceptions about “Native American art” and notions of monolithic cultural identity. For centuries, museums and other educational and cultural institutions have collected art and recounted the stories of communities and cultures without their direct input. In a decisive break with this practice, the Brooklyn Museum invited Gibson to tell his own story as an artist of Native American descent, through his work and investigation of the museum’s holdings as well as his commentaries and those co-authored with Dr. Crouch. Visually striking and intellectually provocative, When Fire Is Applied to a Stone It Cracks is an original and innovative project: inviting a more expansive narrative that includes and integrates the histories of Indigenous people and challenging visitors to reconsider their assumptions of what Native American art can be.
Jeffrey Gibson and Dr. Christian Ayne Crouch
“People often approach cultural and educational institutions such as libraries, museums, and universities with a narrow lens; the public focuses on collection items on display in a museum, and few—often specialized academics—explore the institution’s study collections, library, and archives. Building on initiatives to foster greater openness and having worked with records detailing how materials enter into collections through museum work and research, each of us saw an opportunity in making this process more transparent to the public, developing a broader story around these collections and considering the provocations that emerged from working with rich and relatively unedited material. This space offers the generative possibility of dismantling the boundaries of collections and archives and contemporary and continuing artistic practices. Bringing material from the archives into this space does not simply end with adding narrative of how collection items came into the Brooklyn Museum. Although Stewart Culin accelerated the Museum’s acquisition of Native American material and chronicled this process in depth through his meticulous expedition reports, which detailed each collecting venture, our aim is not to focus on Culin’s practice or amplify his voice from the reports now kept in the Museum Archives. Culin reflected the prerogatives of his peers and institutions of his era. Like George Catlin, an American painter known for his portraits of Native Americans two generations earlier, or like Culin’s own contemporaries, such as anthropologist and curator Franz Boas or photographer Edward Curtis, the collection-building and observations made by Culin reinforced a culture of dying indigeneity that legitimized federal projects ensuring that Native people would be seen as vanishing by most Americans. These institutional practices often alienated and distanced Native communities from culturally significant objects and from creative practices rooted in their languages and homelands. The material in this room rejects the romanticized idea of the West—a false, vanishing frontier—or the reductive theatricality of the Wild West show. We aimed to mute Culin’s voice in order to return the focus to Native people represented in the Archives and reports, who went about their daily lives and projected distinct representations of themselves. Peeling away the intrusive and distorted layers of Anglo-American expectation, we read these records instead for how they witness communities and makers rejecting the colonial gaze—rejecting the imposition of categories they found meaningless or irrelevant—and look instead for moments where Indigenous people’s understanding of themselves as makers leaps off the page. We offer possibilities to recover voices and self-representation of the subjects whose presence in this material has been previously overlooked, and we encourage viewers to do the same to challenge their assumptions. We are accustomed to approaching collections as representative of the totality, displaying the best examples of work; we read what is presented exclusively in terms of being fine art. Here, the archival material challenges that narrative and makes us think much more about the Native actors who actually shaped what ended up in museum holdings.”