Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds uses a distinctive form of printmaking to convey the power of his people.
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The artist Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds, of the Cheyenne and Arapaho nation, embraces mistakes. His Native perspective taught him to be accepting of nature. His version of printmaking, as evidenced in his latest exhibit, “Old Indian Tricks,” rejects standardization and believes in the alchemy of art.
His multidisciplinary work includes public installations, as he did with a basketball court in Queens, N.Y., and has been featured in museum exhibitions, like the one at MoMA Ps1, which addressed the violence U.S. troops committed against Native Americans.
Now on view at the Hannah Traore Gallery on the Lower East Side, “Old Indian Tricks” is a 30-foot installation of 48 monotype prints: 24 primary prints and 24 ghost prints, or reverse copies, exploring America’s relationship with Native Americans. The ghost print is created using viscosity printing, a method in which clear oil is brushed over transparent plexiglass plates.
We spoke with Heap of Birds about his use of ghost prints and how decades of being an artist and educator have informed his work and life. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Why did you choose to ghost-print?
My printmaker, Michael McCabe, he lives in Santa Fe, and he’s Navajo. He didn’t tell me about ghosting until about four years ago. He told me one day, We can ghost that thing. I don’t even have to paint it. We just take the plate and run it through the press again.
I got to thinking about that ghost. It became this great metaphor for where Natives are today in this country. They’re very faint, they’re very diminished. And that’s what those prints did. My guy in Hawaii, he’s a master printer. He told me, “No one shows them like you do. No one admits the ghost and the flaws of the printmaking process. They’re always trying to make beautiful things and absolute perfect things. But you put it all together — the flaws, the blemishes — and put it together as one object.” I said, “I’m a painter. We don’t hide everything.”
As a Native American, almost as an archetypal stance, we accept what the nature brings. This dominant culture tries to make nature be their slave. The tribes accept the weather, accept things that happen, the water, the heat. They’re going to accept it and work with it. We accept everything that comes with the prints and don’t ever remake it again. Whatever comes out of that press, goes up.
The idea of harnessing the colloquialism “Old Indian Tricks” was inspired by an offhand comment from your sister’s husband. How did this exhibition take shape?
That’s how people think of us in some ways, that we might have some kind of scheme or a mystery about medicine on a funny level. This project is actually a lot of different strays from different projects, but the makeup of it is a new formation. It’s not trickery but a little bit of a flip.
It’s like a sleight of hand.
Yeah. It’s like it didn’t exist. And people ask, How did you get there? Each page is one kind of experience. Some of them are slow, sensual, sexual, personal. But then a lot of them are pretty much what the prints say. I hunted when I lived on the reservation: “So Bullets Are Rapid.” And there were a lot of things happening with people still getting shot today.
The one at the top, “For Every One Have Something,” I feel really strongly about. That’s back to that ceremonial protocol. My grandma used to say, “If you go visit, don’t go unless you have something to give away.” I do think a lot about that, about trying to share.
Do you feel it’s your job to educate people who are not Native? Is that a burden?
I’ve got to fight and defend Native nations. It’s necessary because there’s such an absence of respect and understanding. But the paintings I’m doing are more celebratory. They come from the land on the reservation where I’ve lived for 10 years. I balance that with my own practice in that I’m not pigeonholed as the political artist. Some of my printmaking, too, is more about sexuality, sensuality; it’s more personal.
What are things that you care most about in your Cheyenne community?
Here, the Cheyenne Arapaho have one tribal group together in the South, and we call ourselves C and A’s. One new piece is called “C and A Survival Indian Territory.” It looks at all these different battles. Some of them we won, some we lost. It looks at residential schools, boarding school issues where my mother and father went to school. Things that are Cheyenne Arapaho legacy. The triumph and the sorrows. I’ve been researching our history in the last few months and made a series of those prints.
Do you find ways to soothe yourself against the trauma of your work, researching history?
You need to have a time to enjoy. I have a daughter, who’s 13, and I take her to school every day. It’s really great to have a family. I watch the news and I research, and there’s so many horrible things going on in this planet. If I wasn’t making something, I’d be ashamed of myself. I’m doing an endowment [at the University of Kansas]. I’m proud of this. I’m trying to support the future generations. That’s really positive.
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