After months of logistics and preparation, the Julie Buffalohead exhibition opened in the Perlman Teaching Museum on September 29, 2022. The initial idea for this show had already been born before Sara Cluggish, Mary Huling Rice Director and Curator of the Perlman Teaching Museum, joined the Perlman in 2020. Zoe Adler, Robert C. Larson ’56 Art in the Library Program Interim Curator, was familiar with Julie Buffalohead’s (Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma) work after previously working at Highpoint Printmaking in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Buffalohead had done some work at the studio in the past, and Adler was drawn to her complex, unique and often humorous prints that were imbued with stories and meaning. Adler thought her works would be a great fit at Carleton and that students would be interested in them. Cluggish felt a similar affinity for Buffalohead’s work, and was enthusiastic about working with Buffalohead and bringing her work to the Perlman Teaching Museum. Over the past few months, Cluggish has worked directly with Julie Buffalohead and her gallery, as well as institutional lenders and private collectors to secure a wide range of Buffalohead’s work to display in the exhibition.
Upon entering the exhibition, the very first work visitors will see is a mixed-media piece made specifically for this exhibition. Unlike all the other works in the exhibition, it is not framed, but instead mounted directly on the wall. This is how Buffalohead typically displays her work, but once pieces are bought by private collectors, Cluggish explains, “they tend to frame it to keep it safe and protected.” Cluggish decided to display this as the first work in the exhibition because it provides “directness and tactility that allows viewers to get a sense of the way that she works with materials.”
Most works in the exhibition are prints, influenced by numerous aspects of her identity and lived experiences; each work is multifaceted in its symbolism. When Buffalohead’s daughter was born over ten years ago, she switched from painting to printmaking — printmaking was less toxic, and drawing and printmaking with a young child was easier than painting. Motherhood and child-rearing were not the only catalysts for this switch in medium, but the theme is prominently displayed in a number of works on display in the exhibition. This resonated with Rylyn Monahan ’23, who visited the exhibition and attended Buffalohead’s conversation with Gwen Westerman last week: “she mentions how her art changed after having her daughter, and I thought that it was a good reminder that your art can change to take the shape of you and your life in the present moment.”
Julie Buffalohead’s Indigenous identity is also forefront in her works. She incorporates Native storytelling into all of her works in the exhibition; coyotes, deer and rabbits occupy many spaces in her prints. These animals are trickster characters from traditional Native stories, and Buffalohead describes them as “inherently neither good nor evil, but both, and responsible for creation and destruction without shame.” She often juxtaposes these characters and her Native identity with representations of her Euro-American background and popular culture, like in the form of a selfie in The Selfie. Cluggish notes that many of Buffalohead’s works “talk about this kind of bifurcated sense of self.” Cluggish continued, “a lot of her work comes from the native storytelling traditions that she grew up with in the Ponca Tribe in Oklahoma. These stories are creation tales that have been passed down person to person intergenerationally; there’s an oral tradition around them, but she kind of weaves them into her work alongside contemporary references.”
In her own words, Buffalohead’s work “[focuses] thematically upon describing Indian cultural experience through personal metaphor and narrative, drawing from the substance of traditional stories while contextualizing motifs of cultural identity.”
Julie Buffalohead will be on show in the Perlman until November 16, 2022.
Featured image: Julie Buffalohead. The Standoff (2012). Mixed media on paper. Collection of Thomas J Arneson. Image courtesy of the artist and Bockley Gallery.