Art from an Indigenous Perspective: A Chat with Gregg Deal

“Stories are to be carried, stories are to be held, stories are to be revered,” Colorado–based artist Gregg Deal explained during his TED Talk in Boulder in 2018. In the United States and throughout the Americas, western culture largely reduces the complex and nuanced stories of Indigenous people to harmful stereotypes manufactured and routinely perpetuated by pop culture. Those stereotypes have ingrained themselves so deeply into society that they shape people’s expectations of contemporary Indigenous artists. Deal, a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, refuses to play by those rules.

He views himself first and foremost as a husband and father. But in the art world, he’s a professional disruptor with a punk-rock approach. Through keen observations and sobering commentary, he shares his unique perspective as an Indigenous person and explores themes including Indigenous identity, historical consideration, and decolonization. Since the early 2000s, he has shown his paintings and installations at an array of institutions including the Denver Art Museum, Denver University, and UC Berkeley.

Of all his work, Deal is best-known for his provocative, unflinching performance art. Pieces such as 2013’s The Last American Indian on Earth have led to him appearing on TV shows including the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell. Rocky Mountain PBS also showcased his work on their program Arts District.

While preparing for his upcoming shows in 2022, Deal found time to talk with us about everything from the consequences of Romantic Nationalism to ways we can all uplift Indigenous artists.

What was your experience like growing up as an Indigenous person in Park City, Utah? What made you gravitate toward drawing and painting when you were younger?

Gregg Deal: Growing up in Park City wasn’t easy at all. We weren’t poor, per se, but definitely broke. What was strange about it was being broke but still having access to the privileges of growing up in a ski resort town. The way Park City was working at the time is that it was a small town. Park City, Utah in the 80’s and 90’s wasn’t diverse at all, and my younger sister and I often found ourselves on the outs because of our Indigeniety. That certainly made it hard.

Part of that conversation was being made to feel stupid. Some teachers and peers alike tried to decide that [we] were worth nothing, that I was stupid, ugly, and somehow didn’t belong. The one thing I 100% knew I could do was draw, so that’s what I spent most of my time doing. It was the grand escape from how crappy everything was. That and music and films. Those were the things that saved my skin as a young person.

In your performance piece, The Punk Pan-Indian Romantic Comedy, you talk about the music that moved you throughout your life. You included songs by the likes of Black Flag, Minor Threat, and The Circle Jerks. How has punk music influenced your approach to making art?

GD: Punk music spoke to something that didn’t require a change in my economic circumstance, the color of my skin, or anything else required for me to participate socially in school. The punk ethos of rebelling, questioning everything, indignation, disenfranchisement, and fighting those things that are unjust spoke to me on every level. Having a soundtrack was how [punk music] participated in my life, and so it’s all I listened to and had running in the background. The influence in my work is my ethos, I think, but also in giving me permission to be myself in all ways. So that’s what I’ve done consistently in my work.

What are some of the biggest challenges Indigenous artists like yourself face in the art world today?

GD: I can’t speak for all Indigenous artists on this, but I can speak for myself. First and foremost, the difficulty of existing outside of a commodified identity is tough. Can I not be a contemporary artist that is influenced by my Indigenous identity? Must I be an Indigenous artist? The consumable aspect of the latter is something that has been used to commodify Indigenous people, art, wares, and culture to be consumed by western culture, ultimately driving the art market through that consumption. In other words, so much of our existence has been predicated by the perception of our existence, what we are expected to be, rather than the truth. So often we haven’t informed what people believe, but instead have been informed by film, art, literature, etc.

Breaking out of the romantic stereotypical expectation has been tough, especially when the Indigenous art market is often dictated by a western buyer’s market. I care less and less at how this affects my work now, but know it has affected [my art] in the past, and worry at how it affects up-and-coming artists today.

In live performances such as Supreme Law of the Land and Indian Pedigree, you use your own body as an implement of art, staging profound scenes that leave a lasting impression. Who or what was your gateway to this style of performance art?

GD: There have been a few performance artists, but none as influential as James Luna. I had it in my mind that performative work has an element of sacrifice or suffering associated with it, though. It certainly grabs the attention, but also drives the points associated with them home.

“Colonialism Spray Can”

Colonialism Spray Can is a small mural you painted for the annual Nuit Blanche: Art All Night event in Washington D.C., and it became one of your most popular poster prints. Why do you think the message resonates with so many people?

GD: The “Colonialism Spray Can” was originally worked out independently. I generally will produce things that can live in print form (prints, stickers, t-shirts, etc.), but can also exist in a mural. When I had an opportunity to produce this installation piece to house visual art and a working performance piece, it was my desire to create some pieces that stood out and spelled out what this installation was about, and to do my best to showcase new works.

At the time, “Colonial Spray Can” was completely new. So I made it on the outside of the installation and it stood as a strong piece within the larger installation, but also on it’s own for the temporary time it was up! I was able to do it again in 2018 at the CU Boulder College campus in Boulder, CO  in the Art and Art History building as well. It’s legitimately been in play since 2014.

How would you define Romantic Nationalism and what impact does it have on Indigenous communities?

GD: Romantic Nationalism is wholeheartedly the infallibility of the United States of America, all of its actions and history rolled up to continue supporting the idea that we are a country without fault. This is especially true with something like westward expansion, or Manifest Destiny, of which I make mention in this specific piece. The romanticism of such things will literally erase those on the negative end—which would include BIPOC—leaving out key details that don’t allow people to get the full story, think critically, or learn from the past. Nationalism isn’t patriotism, because it accepts no fault. Romanticism amplifies that feeling, thus negating truth. I think this is harmful to everyone, but certainly contributes to the continued erasure of our people in history, and in the communities, states, and country we live in.

Romantic Nationalism masks the uncomfortable truths about American history. How do we remove that veneer to see a more accurate depiction of the past?

GD: Removing the veneer that hides the past is a tough one. Education would be a key component to this, particularly in raising our children up to understand all aspects of history. This type of education raises people into mindful humans that (hopefully) will enact change needed to right wrongs. Unfortunately this very issue has manifested itself into a dog whistle in our education system, and efforts to stop teaching things that “make people feel bad” for the sins of the past.

When is a good time to learn about racism and to think through the sins of the past? When is a good time to enact change with love and compassion? I was 6 years old when I heard my first racial slur hurled at me. If I can hear that at 6, I’m sure we can teach 6 year olds about the pitfalls of something like racism, and encourage compassion, kindness, and tolerance for those who might be perceived as different. Kids are really good at this. Adults are not. Nurturing these things in our children would be a key element, in my opinion.

Much of my work is about disrupting spaces. If I had anything to add, it would be that supporting Native artists, designers, writers, filmmakers, artisans, and creatives is key. So, yes, that means you can wear these shirts, or wear those beaded earrings you bought from an Indigenous creator, and yes, you can share that with others…Also, you’re on our homelands. Don’t forget that. We sure as hell haven’t. Much love!

Gregg Deal Instagram Post

Your film, The Last American Indian on Earth, documents your 2013 performance art piece in which you walked around D.C. in an outfit embodying Indigenous stereotypes. The reactions you received ranged from dehumanizing to bizarre. What encounter surprised you the most?

GD: My first job out of college was working at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Indians, the inaugural year it opened on the National Mall. In that job, there were significant issues that the all-Native staff on the floor had in dealing with the general American public as Indigenous people. I knew this concept of a performance piece would work, given the lack of knowledge, understanding, and insensitivity America, if not western culture at large, has towards Indigenous people. Honestly, I was never truly surprised as a result. What happened in this one performance piece happens to all Native people in one form or another. This performance piece was only amplified by the circumstances.

The reactions to an Indigenous figure, particularly a recognizable one, are not new. Indigenous feelings about how we are treated, perceived, or considered through a western sense have often been dismissed. Creating something where documentation of this common reaction articulates the complaints many Indigenous people have in how non-Native people react to us and the things they say. It becomes a social mirror to those blind to this aspect of our lives—a microscope on a very real problem that contributes to the inequity of Indigenous people in the United States.

Exploring heavy topics such as race, identity, and genocide seems more important now than ever before. How can people support you so you can continue spreading your message?

GD: A big part of the conversation in terms of consideration of BIPOC folks requires questions to answer yourself. Are you making room for BIPOC in your workplace, your school, and even your home? We live in a capitalist society, and money talks, so supporting artists, activists, and people in general with your dollars always helps. Often when folks speak out and participate in spaces that require the input of BIPOC, those people are not paid, or paid very little for their knowledge. This must change. Relatedly, recognizing the land you’re on is great. Supporting organizations that are trying to enact change, education, and resources for Indigenous people is also important.

All of this information is just a Google search away. How committed to equitable representation in your communities are you? What are you doing to make that happen? How does your local education do? Are you advocating for teaching truth in your local classrooms or colleges? What are you doing to support that? There are a lot of ways people can support these efforts by not just educating for themselves, but advocating for change and inviting people to the table who might not otherwise be invited. Just remember, being a good ally isn’t telling these things to people, but making space for people to tell their own story.

What do you hope people take away from your art, be it your paintings, murals, or live performances?

GD: Honestly, I am a contemporary artist that has an Indigenous perspective. I’m not necessarily striving to educate people on issues so much as I’m creating work that exists from my own worldview, perspective, or experience. This is where things get dicey for Indigenous people, if not anyone considered “different.” Commodifying our image, our identity, our ideas is a legitimately dangerous place, and often the go-to reaction to our presence in any medium. My hope is to create work that is artistically viable, that can exist with other contemporary art, pushing ideas and thoughts with consideration of history and place.

If this work educates you, great. If this work moves you, great! If you hate it, great. This is the beauty of art, it can be all of these things, and often many things to many people. I am not arrogant enough to believe I am the voice of anyone but myself. My oldest child is nonbinary and I cannot speak for them even. We have a shared experience though, and if I could have anyone take something away from this, it would be the realization of the power of art. I hope an Indigenous child can see some of this and think “I can do that,” and then do. Other than that, it is what it is!

What can fans of your art look forward to in 2022? Any major projects coming up?

GD: I have three major solo shows coming up. One opening February at CU Denver’s Emanuel Gallery, and two solo shows in the fall at the same time. I am pushing new work, new ideas, and even new mediums. For months, I have been making and creating works that are pushing me to think long and hard about next steps and how to challenge myself, the narratives and ideas. I have a band, and I think we are actually recording new work early this year, new performance pieces, and of course, murals. This feels like an important year for my career and I’m genuinely excited about it. Stay tuned to my Instagram as it comes together!

Gregg Deal Instagram Post

Special thanks to Gregg Deal for this illuminating conversation! Be sure to follow him on Instagram and visit his website for news on his upcoming projects. Also head to his Artist Shop to find his incredible art on a range of apparel!

CategoriesArtists Speak
Rafael Velez

Copywriter at Threadless. Lover of thin-crust pizza, heavy metal, and B horror movies. Food source for a husky and two cats.