Artist, professor and activist Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds joined Forms of Reparations: The Museum and Restorative Justice on Oct. 5 to share how he created his own place in art.
Heap of Birds is a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Nations. He has long used his work to call attention to the injustice Native communities have faced through public art, including sculptures, prints and painting.
Forms of Reparations: The Museum and Restorative Justice is a virtual speaker series that examines the ways institutions, including CSULB, have sustained “white supremacy, imperialism and exploitation,” according to their website.
At the beginning of the event, Heap of Birds dedicated the talk to indigenous women and recalled his connection with his grandmother.
His grandmother’s name, Heap of Birds said, means lightning woman and “lightning from the sky as it comes down to earth.”
“The lines that we have as a tribal nation goes back to the elders, and of course, the family is central,” Heap of Birds said.
Heap of Birds explained how artists can create relationships with mentors and find individuals that can help guide their careers.
Although Heap of Birds was not close with artist and Comanche–Kiowa tribe member Blackbear Bosin, he said he felt lucky to have him in his life.
One of Blackbear Bosin’s most notable works include “Prairie Fire” which was in National Geographic in 1955.
Heap of Birds explained how the painting shows both animals and native people fleeing from the fire, not as different species but spirits on this planet.
“[The fire is] not totally threatening,” Heap of Birds said. “It’s very beautiful and he’s talking about that kind of union of the animals and the fire and the earth.”
While at the University of Kansas, Heap of Birds and another mentor of his, Don Secondine, decided to create art outside of the confines of an assignment. Rather than paint a landscape, Heap of Birds and Secondine created earthwork, a form of art made by shaping the land or using natural materials to do so.
While Heap of Birds would not return to that type of work for another 20 years, he continued working with sculptures.
“So there again, you work in a certain kind of idiom, you make it your own, even though you’re within institutional class work,” Heap of Birds said.
His academic career continued at the Tyler School of Art and Architecture in Philadelphia. Heap of Birds was enrolled as a graduate student, but all the years he spent uprooting his life to attend other schools confused him.
“At this point I’m searching for a politic and an idiom that would express my confusion or my worry or my rage of being a young Cheyenne man in America,” Heap of Birds said.
Later in his life, in the magazine Art in America, Heap of Birds shared a message to other native artists.
“‘Do not dance for pay,’” Heap of Birds said. “I asked them to really be more enlightened, not to entertain, but to actually fight for your family, your tribe, your identity and make art that isn’t just entertaining.”
Before the event came to a close, graduate student Jill Marriage, lead organizer and producer, asked Heap of Birds what type of artwork he is most excited to see as a viewer and the power of art in today’s social climate.
Marriage also asked if Heap of Birds ever disagreed with the way a gallery or museum showcased his work and what artists could do in that situation.
“If you’re [a] young artist, I would just worry about the work and then actually connecting with other artists and being generous, and then it may take a couple decades, you know, to get where you want to go,” Heap of Birds said.
To register for more events, visit the Forms of Reparations: The Museum and Restorative Justice website.