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Edgar Heap of Birds
Pitzer Art Galleries, Pitzer College, Claremont, California
Preview by Kathy Zimmerer

Edgar Heap of Birds, "Defend Sacred Mountains, Mauna Kea," ink on rag paper, monoprints, 44 x 120"

Continuing through March 20, 2018

In four suites of glowing monoprints scribbled with graffiti writing, Edgar Heap of Birds, a Cheyenne-Arapaho artist, continues his activism in protesting the commercial and cultural appropriation of sites sacred to Native Americans and Hawaiians in his exhibit, “Defend Sacred Mountains.” With a long history of protest and a convincing inner wisdom, the artist’s monoprints are a complex layered statement against defiling sacred sites with contemporary cultural insults, such as the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, with its attendant carnival-like atmosphere that runs on the sacred land near Bear Butte in South Dakota.

Each of the four suites pinpoints a point of protest, including Bear’s Lodge, known as the Devil’s Tower, a 875-foot tall butte in Wyoming that is a sacred site to the Northern Great Plains Indians and where 5,000 climbers go every year, piercing the rock with their climbing spikes. In another suite he focuses on San Francisco Peaks in Arizona, where wastewater runoff used to make artificial snow for skiing and snowboarding desecrates the environment where medicinal and ceremonial plants are cultivated by the Dine/Navajo tribe. Construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope is slated for Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano on the island of Hawaii; its summit is a site sacred to the ancient Hawaiians, where four obsolete telescope observation platforms already exist. In the “Mauna Kea” suite, the brilliant crimson background and white writing are eye popping. Heap of Birds effectively uses terse words and phrases as referential visual symbols, one example of which is DEITIES SET ASIDE VOLCANO NATIONAL PARK.  

The sketchy appearance of these monoprints strengthens their position as street art or protest graffiti. Made under the aegis of master Navajo printer Michael McCabe, the artist paints words backward on a clear glass, relishing the fluidity of his text and the subsequent loss of paint, which results in dissolving letters. His loose and distinctive technique endows the monoprints with street cred, as close to the hand lettered signs of a protest as a formal work of art can be. His natural poetic spirit comes through clearly in the striking text that delves right to the heart of the matter.

Heap of Birds groups these monoprints together to amplify the strength of his message. In the “Mauna Kea” suite the contradiction between the sacred and profane comes through in his words HAUL THEM AWAY WHILE THEY PRAY. Heap of Birds’s execution combines the rapid brushwork of gestural expression with a deliberate, paced rhythm and tone that reinforces the artist’s message and reflects his ancient culture, as in in the phrase, CONDUCT AS IF ELDERS STAND AMONG YOU.

In “Mauna Kea” the artist lines up two rows of eight sheets to create an implacable grid of protest. With their glowing red grounds and painted letters, the suite reads like a prose poem. Declarations such as WE ARE LAND AND LAND IS US emphasize his message of Native Americans’ and Hawaiians' indivisible relationship to their sacred spaces. The haunting simplicity of his words is in deliberate contrast to the crass commercial uses of the mountains he references (even when in the interest of science). This show attempts to persuade that such locations should be preserved as gloriously beautiful, unaltered sacred sites free of the hand of man.

Pitzer College, Pitzer Art Galleries

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