Jeffrey Gibson threads his Native American heritage with contemporary art in ‘Like A Hammer’ exhibit

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The Mississippi Museum of Art will showcase the first major survey of work by Native-American contemporary artist Jeffrey Gibson in its Donna and Jim Barksdale* Galleries for Changing Exhibitions until Jan. 27, 2019.

Jeffrey Gibson: Like A Hammer consists of approximately 65 intricate pieces that reflect not only Gibson’s process of self-discovery but also his acceptance of the various cultural and societal experiences that have challenged and shaped him.

Jeffrey Gibson

“Like A Hammer features works from one of the most important periods of my career so far,” Gibson said. “The exhibition begins with artworks that I made just after nearly giving up making art altogether due to feeling misunderstood as an artist and struggling to establish a personal language that describes my experience without compromising. The objects, sculptures, and paintings I’ve made since 2011 document this journey of establishing my own forward-looking voice influenced by all that has come before me.”

Born in Colorado Springs, Colo., Gibson grew up abroad. His dad’s military status sent his family to cities in Germany, South Korea and England. Although he never remained bound to one place for too long as a child, he never left behind his Southern roots and Native American heritage.

Gibson’s mother’s family is from Oklahoma, and his dad’s family is from Mississippi. The artist is a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and identifies as half Cherokee.

Gibson’s work, inspired by his Native American heritage, American pop culture and traditional contemporary art, intertwines themes of race, power, colonialism and stereotypes with concepts of love, acceptance, community and survival.

Gibson manages to project these ideas through layers of assorted pieces and materials considered central to indigenous culture and survival. These elements include repurposed tipi poles, buffalo hides, wool blankets, copper jingles and glass beads.

Mississippi Museum of Art

Freedom by Jeffrey Gibson

“I do try to make a really clear distinction that I’m not actually interpreting their (Native American’s) history,” Gibson said. “I’m looking at a material and how it was used in the past. And I’m trying to think about why that material did or didn’t continue existing to be in practice and then trying to reinvent ways of using it in a way that can tell a contemporary narrative.”

This is the first time this particular body of Gibson’s work, which originated and first organized by the Denver Art Museum, will be featured in Mississippi. After the exhibition’s run ends in Jackson, it will then be on view at the Seattle Art Museum, followed by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Madison, Wis.

Gibson says Mississippians may see his art differently than people who live in other places.

“I think that people have an awareness of a lot of the subtleties that exist in the work that is often times not acknowledged or seen in other communities where people are looking at it,” Gibson said. “I live in the Northeast, and the Northeast has an awareness of, let’s say, the history of civil rights and slavery of the South. But unless you have any sort of personal, familial connection that’s going to make you consider it, I don’t know if it’s anything more than an idea… Mississippi families have come through this history. It adds a facet to the work that doesn’t always happen in other places.”

Although Gibson considers himself unabashedly political, the beauty of his vivid, textured pieces — including acrylic paintings and beaded Everlast punching bags — almost veil the artist’s commentary.

Sereena Henderson / Mississippi Today

White Power and People Like Us hang side by side in the Jeffrey Gibson: Like A Hammer exhibition.

Despite the provocative themes he addresses, Gibson believes he creates a figurative safe space for the interpretations and theories that his art may evoke.

“I think I choose words and I choose formats that kind of can be non-confrontational because they’re beautiful,” he said. “They can be non-confrontational because they fall under the histories of adornment and decorative. These are all things we never saw as weapons. These are things we never saw as aggressive tactics. It’s more of a psychological play.”

He hopes that the enchanting nature of his art will allow people to explore controversial ideas in a healthy way. Creating his own personal safe space, his studio, was one of the first steps in Gibson’s self-acceptance as a gay, Native American artist. “If you spend enough time in a space where you don’t feel threatened, you will develop a way of thinking, existing and moving without feeling under threat,” he said.

“I really would have had trouble charging people to see this work because it really is so much about equity and access and pulling people in through all kinds of different conversations and cultures,” said museum director Betsy Bradley.

For more information on the Jeffrey Gibson: Like A Hammer exhibition, which is free to the public, and other current and upcoming exhibitions, visit msmuseumart.org.

*Disclosure: Donna and Jim Barksdale are members of the Mississippi Today board of directors as well as donors.