Native American Artist Explores Culture in Longyear Exhibit

by Marissa Hannan

Art is not a mirror, art is a hatchet ... I am Big Chief, I am Tonto, I am the drunk on a bench, I am the Shaman, I am an artist, therefore, I am the savage.

Rhett Lynch's words reach softly across the quiet auditorium of Alumni Hall, and draw you into the history of his self-discovery as an artisan and as a Native American. His narrative accompanies an extensive series of his own work. Beginning in New Mexico, then voyaging to New York and Los Angeles before settling in Santa Fe, each move has a theme to it, accompanying his growth in his art and wisdom of who he is in his Native American culture. Although some Native American themes and ideas have shown through in his work before, Lynch has never purposefully used his ethnicity as a promotion for his work. It is only now that he has decided to finally address the way in which his culture is viewed by much of the world.


The "Culture in Decay" exhibition currently displayed on the second floor of the Longyear Museum of Anthropology in Alumni Hall is Lynch's most recent project. There are a variety of mediums in this show, but your attention is first drawn to the free-standing centerpiece of the museum - a compilation of two trash cans, "Indian" paraphernalia and Navajo blankets with a perched bird overlooking everything. This sculpture is symbolic of the idea for all the paintings and works on display - the fortification of the Native American world against exploitation through media stereotypes, the recognition of that world's trials and humiliations, and, finally, its persevering dignity.

On a background of the blankets, the two trash cans empty their contents. From the one labeled "Made in Hong Kong" and "Made in Taiwan" tumbles the ramshackle collection of cheap take-offs of Native American objects. Among these plastic beads, rubber "braves" and faux-fur war drums in primary colors lies the insult to a culture that has existed for hundreds of years. These are the byproducts of television's definition of the savage and touristy toys meant to promote sales, not true heritage.

From the other trash can, labeled "Made in America," a similar content pours forth. Only the objects from this one are the real symbols of Lynch's native history. Turquoise jewelry, real skin drums and figurines flow into the stream from the other can - separated by a bow and some arrows but overlapping in places. It is as if the juxtaposition of these two ideas symbolizes the ongoing conflict of Native American ideas with the media. The tone of the exhibit is set by the bird sitting on the "Made in America" can - a raven, which Lynch explains is a "traditional symbol of home and wisdom" to his people.

Lining the walls are "war shields," showing the way his people can continue to persevere and benefit in a world full of demeaning stereotypes. These shields are actually trash can lids painted with several images, among these the portraits of Native American war heroes and leaders. The handles on some of these lids often emphasize the trait that each person was most famous for - for example, Sitting Bull's handle is placed in his forehead demonstrating his great knowledge, and Chief Joseph's handle is on his mouth, representing his legendary speaking prowess.

The remaining works in the display have different significance. There are two large pieces composed of vibrant blocks of color, reminiscent of a Navajo blanket pattern. A political piece gives you a perspective of the way the world views an "Indian" - you look into the painting, which is symbolic of the outside world, and the world "Red" is branded on your forehead. There is a colorful reproduction of Lynch's "Big Chief" kindergarten writing tablet, which reminds him of his youth and the beginning of his life as an artist. In the hallway outside the museum room, there are some of Lynch's earlier paintings. In each is the symbol of the dog, representative of himself and of his discovery of culture while journeying through life.

Born in 1959 in Lubbock, Texas, Lynch was always a wanderer. He studied anatomy and medical drawing at Texas Tech University with the goal of illustrating medical journals in mind. After discovering a love of landscape painting, Lynch changed his career plans and traveled around the southwest instead, captivated by the colors of the desert and what was once his tribal Navajo homeland. Before he traveled to New York, Lynch picked up the theme of the dog in his work, but left it behind while he was in the Big Apple.

After an extended series of faceless figures in suits on textile background, which Lynch said had to do with his self-discovery in one way or another, he returned to the canine image upon his return to the Southwest. When he went to Los Angeles after returning home for a short period, it was this new image that journeyed through surrealistic, Hollywood Boulevard backdrops.

Upon the death of his father, Lynch had a life-changing period in his career. Forced to embrace his mortality and examine what he wanted from the world, he decided to settle in Santa Fe and has lived there since, producing even more pieces as he continues on his journey of self.

That is where we join Lynch in his voyage, as viewers of the "Culture in Decay" exhibition. If you are interested in his story and want to see his most recent project, visit the second floor of Alumni Hall. The museum hours are 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Monday through Friday. Appointments can be set up or questions answered by calling ext. 7184.