“Native Americana,” Frank Buffalo Hyde’s solo exhibition at the Everson Museum, explores the work of an artist who skillfully interprets mass media including movies, films and advertisements, who critiques portrayals of Native Americans, and who reflects on his own experiences growing up as the son of an Onondaga mother and Nez Perce father.
The show, which consists of a bevy of acrylics, two installations and a mixed-media assemblage, encompasses a variety of mass-culture imagery. Indeed, viewers will encounter images of agents Scully and Mulder from “The X- Files,” of Vincent Viga, the character played by John Travolta in “Pulp Fiction,” and of Big Boy, the symbol for a restaurant chain, and much more.
Works investigating mass culture help make a transition to a larger discussion, to consideration of the way in which Native American heritage has been commodified, used to sell everything from sports teams to a range of products to personal growth.
The exhibit, with its extensive display of Hyde’s pieces, demonstrates his ability to stay fresh, to be inventive visually and conceptually. In “Teddy Bear Totem,” he sets up four stacks of teddy bears, some wearing sunglasses. He touches on totem poles which have socio-cultural significance for Indigenous people in the Pacific Northwest. The totems are made to commemorate family members, community histories, and events important to local people.
Yet, knock-offs are produced for sale, sharing only the name: totem pole. In his assemblage, Hyde is asking what makes a totem pole. Is it merely the positioning of objects in a vertical column?
And he created the acrylic “No More Rushmore,” referencing Mount Rushmore where images of four presidents — Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt — were carved into a mountainside.
In Hyde’s work, those huge stone faces don’t exist. In an interview available on video at the Everson, he spoke of how the construction at Mount Rushmore defaced a space held sacred by Lakota people, and honors leaders whose policies caused great harm to Indigenous people.
There are other works addressing complex issues in a visceral fashion. For example, in “No Knock Warrant: God of War,” troops approach a tipi. The acrylic seems to refer both to no-knock warrants, a staple of the War on Drugs, and to the events of the late 19th century in the United States. During that period, federal troops advancing on Indigenous communities were operating under military commanders, not a judge’s authorization.
Another acrylic depicts a huge finger pointing at a tiny Indigenous figure, accompanied by a tagline: “let me see your CDIB.” The piece refers to a card issued by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs which discusses tribal affiliation. At the very least, the work is questioning the irony of a government agency defining personal identity.
In addition, various artworks depict buffaloes. That doesn’t mean the artist is fixated on his name; rather, it seems to connect with his life experiences and the significance that buffalo herds have for a variety of Indigenous communities. As a child he lived mostly with his mother at the Onondaga Nation while spending summers with his father in New Mexico. At Onondaga, he encountered buffaloes living on the nation’s territory. In a statement, he talks about helping to retrieve them when they wandered off.
At the Everson, he created an installation approximating a buffalo pen, a wood structure with small, remote-controlled buffaloes inside.
Moreover, buffaloes appear in several acrylics. In “Buffalo Fields Forever,” buffalo run on a field while a helicopter hovers above them. And another work deals with use of the word buffalo in various contexts, portraying buffalo wings, the sideshow performer Buffalo Bill, and the quarterback for the Buffalo Bills of the National Football League.
Other pieces draw on Hyde’s local connections. “You’re in Onondaga Country,” a large acrylic, incorporates the name Syracuse in press type, depictions of lacrosse players, and a view of the Saltine Warrior, the long-ago mascot for Syracuse University athletic teams. He’s seen as faint and fleeting, perhaps in the realm of memory.
“Your Lease Is Up,” an installation on the museum’s first floor, directly addresses issues of Onondaga Nation sovereignty. It presents a mound of salt, accompanied by audio of a drip, drip, drip sound. A caption explains that a 1795 agreement promised to provide $2,400 and 150 bushels of salt per year to the Onondagas for the leasing of local lands including the city of Syracuse.
The Onondaga Nation has long asserted that New York State’s seizure of its traditional home lands was illegal, starting with actions taken by Governor Dewitt Clinton in 1788. As the caption notes, the Nation has initiated several legal proceedings. The caption can’t discuss the land-rights cases in detail, but the installation does raise the issue.
Finally, the show documents Hyde’s participation in “The Exhibit: Finding the Next Great Artist,” a six-episode series coordinated by MTV and the Smithsonian Channel which premiered during March, 2023. He and six other artists competed for a cash prize and the right to have an exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
A 33-minute video on view at the Everson shows Hyde being interviewed in his studio, creating an artwork on each day of the competition, receiving feedback from the series’ hosts. All of the pieces he created for “Finding the Next Great Artist” are on display at the Everson.
“Native Americana” is on display through Sept. 10 at the Everson, 401 Harrison St. in Syracuse. The museum is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Wednesday and Friday, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursdays, and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.
Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for students and seniors, $1 for people possessing an EBT card, and free for museum members, children 12 and younger, and persons with a military ID.
Carl Mellor covered visual arts for the Syracuse New Times from 1994 through 2019. He continues to write about artists and exhibitions in the Syracuse area.