Seeing Myself in the Work of an Artist I Never Met

There’s a basic understanding that Native people who straddle life inside and outside the reservation share: We can carry our culture with us where ever we go, but also have perspective outside of it.

I never met Kimowan Metchewais, a multidisciplinary Cree artist, whose work explored the connection of Indigenous identity to home and language through contexts of community, environment and spiritual relationships. He died in 2011, a few years before I encountered his art. When I did, I immediately felt a kinship with him and his work.

Kimowan grew up on the Cold Lake First Nations Reserve in Alberta, Canada, and went on to Edmonton to obtain a bachelor of fine arts degree. Similarly, I grew up on the Crow (Apsáalooke) Indian Reservation in Montana and went to Bozeman, where I studied fine arts.

I first saw his work on Facebook. He had posted a photo album labeled “Old Indians with Eyewear, Etc.,” his compilation of 19th- to early-20th-century photographs of Native men wearing glasses or goggles. Maybe this was done with a touch of humor or a tinge of sarcasm, but I felt the detail of the eyewear — the grouping of the images — wasn’t just funny and interesting to look at. It also humanized the men in a way that ethnographers at the time had not.

From “Cold Lake” series (2005).Credit…Kimowan Metchewais

In an essay that is included in an overview of his work, “A Kind of Prayer,” Kimowan wrote about “live relics” embedded in his artwork. Some of them point to knowledge and identity in his community, and others pull from the practice of making art. He unpacks the rich symbolism in the body of work he created in Cold Lake starting in 2004. He described one photograph as a visual poem. In it, you see “a body of water that spans back to a faraway horizon,” he wrote; the words “Cold Lake” appear faintly. Perhaps it reminds you of something you have seen before. But the lake, he explained, is a live relic, it’s significance known to those who live and have lived in his community. It’s one thing to look at an image and another to truly see it and spend time with it.

Untitled (1998).Credit…Kimowan Metchewais

He described his studio as a laboratory — a place where he is working to “crack a crime.” In a sense, as Kimowan pointed out, North America is a crime scene for Indigenous people. He was constantly searching for “clues” through his experiences, his work and his art, to make sense of his world. I feel that we live in that space together. We have very similar practices, though I call mine research and he called his investigation.

In Plains culture, long hair symbolizes power, especially for men. A work I made titled “1880 Crow Peace Delegation” features historical delegation portraits of several Crow chiefs, some of whom wear hair extensions. In one photograph, a chief is seated, his hair pooled on the floor. We even had a chief named Long Hair, whose hair was so long, he could wrap it around the base of a tepee, or so legend goes.

At age 29, Kimowan was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor. The surgery to remove the tumor and radiation treatment left him with a permanent bald spot on the back of his head. His self-portraits point to the importance of hair to Native identity. I wonder if he was confronting his identity in these works. Are you not Native if you don’t have long hair?

Self-portraits (1997-98).Credit…Kimowan Metchewais

Kimowan’s Polaroids of hand gestures are poetic, simple and powerful. My father’s first language is Crow. He told me that when he was young, everyone would sign with hand gestures while they talked. Some signs were specific to the Apsáalooke, and some could be used to communicate with neighboring tribes. My father said that he could pick up conversations from across a room by seeing the hand signs. I don’t see people sign much these days. Seeing this work made me think about my connection to Native sign language.

Hand signs (1997).Credit…Kimowan Metchewais

Art gave me a way to understand or make sense of the world. But my teachers never presented the work of Native artists alongside artists like Cindy Sherman. While I appreciate her work, I don’t connect to it in the same way.

What was awesome about seeing Kimowon’s work was that I immediately understood it. It resonates with me because I can understand his “art language.” I see that he’s using experiences from his community and culture in his work. I do the same thing in my work as an Apsáalooke. That mattered to me because in grad school, I often felt that my professors were intimidated by my work or didn’t understand it. But I like to think that Kimowan and I would have had an understanding of each other’s practice.

Kimowan is a gift — an important voice for Native artists and the contemporary art world. He left us before he got the recognition he so deserved, but we can continue to learn and gain inspiration from the work he left behind. I hope that it will continue to inspire others, as he inspired me.

Wendy Red Star is an Apsáalooke multimedia artist.

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