Laughter and Resilience: Humor in Native American Art Exhibition
Klah and Friends Galleries
November 10, 2019 – October 4, 2020

This exhibition will open to the public on November 10, 2019.

Among many Native American tribes, humor has and continues to play a vital role. Clowns, Koshares, and Heyoka not only provide comedic performances during ceremonials; these contrarians serve an important cultural function by pointing out behavior that falls outside of community standards. Many Indigenous stories feature a trickster who often finds himself in situations related to folly, humor, and mortality. Following in the footsteps of these cultural icons, Native American artists featured in this exhibition use humor, parody, and satire to not only make the viewer laugh, but also combat stereotypes, comment on tribal politics, and critique the National scene. The imagery can poke fun at both non-natives and Native Americans, and these visual representations can be found across a wide range of artistic media including pottery, beadwork, painting and photography.

Humor in art is an important form of artistic expression; yet, until recently, art historians have too frequently devalued these works of art when compared to “serious” subject matter. However, as art historian Wendy Wick Reaves has noted, “Examining humorous art and its full complexity can reveal not only clever manipulations, but also layered meaning and aesthetic sophistication that warrant our attention. Humor in all of its various manifestations can attract attention, soften criticism, delineate social boundaries, and alleviate conflict between people with differing worldviews.” The artists featured in this exhibition use humor in all of these ways.

Says curator, Denise Neil, “the comedic genres employed include, satire, parody, and even whimsy. In many of the works, the viewer will see the humor on the surface, but when the audience fully engages with these images, they will see the deep layers of meaning that express the healing that derives from laughter.” Art in popular culture has played a significant role in forming the images associated with Native Americans, including stoic noble savages, the Indian princess, and generic depictions of the Plains Indians. This exhibition will provide a new way for museum visitors to view Indigenous people and their cultures. As Native American scholar, Vine Deloria, Jr, (Standing Rock Sioux) wrote in Custer Died for Your Sins, “It has always been a great disappointment to Indian people that the humorous side of Indian life has not been mentioned by professed experts on Indian affairs.”

A mini documentary series will feature Native standup comedians including: Bobby Wilson (Sisseton-Wapeton Dakota), Tonia Jo Hall (Lakota- Hidatsa), James June (Navajo), and Ernie Tsosie (Navajo). Films on humor by Native filmmakers will also be highlighted during the run of the exhibition.

This exhibition was curated by Denise Neil, PhD (Cherokee/Delaware) with the support of the Andrew Mellon Foundation. Laughter & Resilience is funded in part by the Art Dealers Association of America Foundation.