The Department of Art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is pleased to announce Rory Erler Wakemup as the 2015 recipient of the Chazen Museum Prize. His exhibition, Kill the Idiot Save the Fan, will run from April 25 through June 7 in the Mayer Gallery at the Chazen Museum of Art. Rory Erler Wakemup received his BFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts in 2010 and is an Anishinabe Indian enrolled in the Boise Forte Band of the Minnesota Chippewa.
Instituted in 2012, to be given annually for five years, the Chazen Museum Prize recognizes the creative excellence of an outstanding third-year Master of Fine Arts candidate in the Department of Art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This years recipient was selected by Chicago-based writer and critic Lori Waxman. Past jurors for this prize have included Michelle Grabner, Bartholomew Ryan and Stuart Horodner.
The Chazen Museum of Art Council and the Wisconsin Arts Board have provided generous support for this exhibition with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.
“Good art is not universal. Bruce Willis is universal.”
The unbearable truth of this quip by the Native American writer Sherman Alexie gets its comeuppance every time artist Rory Erler Wakemup dresses as Darth Chief, his alter ego. A fetishistic hybrid of Star Wars and American Indian culture, Darth Chief wears a latex catsuit and sheathes himself from head to toe in cast-aluminum armor laboriously embellished with glass quillwork and glass feathers. He hunts Indian mascots, the kind that fancy dance in sports arenas, and when he finds them he publicly defiles them in retribution for one hundred years of dehumanization in the name of entertainment. He is a Plains warrior for today.
Kill the Idiot Save the Fan is his coming out party. Certainly he deserves one, as does every Native American Indian still alive today, after five hundred years of genocide at the hands of the white man and his government. Wakemup serves as party planner, as well as main performer, historian, sculptor, comedian, costume designer, storyteller, prop maker, DJ and spiritual advisor. He built the neon ceremonial fires, inflated the burial mounds, hung the disco sun, lit up the chief’s headdress and re-appropriated the peace pipe.
If this seems like more craft, more cliché and more popular culture than a museum gallery can handle, it may well be. On one level it’s all a great big send-up—of art school graduate programs, of the Santa Fe art scene, of Hollywood and of the sports-industrial complex. On another it’s deadly serious. The University of Wisconsin-Madison is built on desecrated burial mounds. The Peace Pipe in its archives was used in graduation ceremonies then stored incorrectly, trapping spirits inside. Chief Illiniwek, the mascot of the University of Illinois, was retired in 2007 but continues to appear in unofficial performances, in the halftime chants of sports fans, and on their jerseys.
Indian humorists like Sherman Alexie and the late Vine Deloria recognized the power of irony and satire for surviving desperate situations—jokes about Custer and the Bureau of Indian Affairs have gone a long way, although ineluctably they can’t ever go all the way. That’s why it’s called a desperate situation.
Inspired by his own experience in Sun Dance ceremonies, where glosses on the Force helped ease grueling coming-of-age rituals, Wakemup is betting that his Star Wars mash-up, among other Old Indian Tricks, will keep Native American customs alive in the present. Any and all fundamentalists—of contemporary art, of Indigenous traditions, of football culture—will be offended, because they can’t take a joke, and because conservatives prefer conservation to innovation, and definitely to revolution. And revolution—of the spirit and of art—is ultimately what Darth Chief and Rory Erler Wakemup are both after. May the Force be with them.