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Jeffrey Gibson by Anthony Hudson

Jeffrey Gibson is the artist representing the United States at the 60th Venice Biennale, but not just: he’s the first Indigenous artist to present a solo exhibition in the US Pavilion since it was inaugurated in 1930. True to his practice, Jeffrey’s exhibition, the space in which to place me, is not entirely his alone. In another first for the Biennale, he has brought to Venice an Indigenous road show of artists, writers, dancers, and performers from nations across Turtle Island to activate his work with him.

I first performed with Jeffrey’s work as Carla Rossi, Portland’s premier drag clown, for Like a Hammer, his exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum in 2019. This was also the first time I saw work in person on museum walls by another queer Indigenous artist. As queerness and Indigeneity have gradually become recognized and supported by art institutions, Jeffrey’s work—inspired as much by pop music and club culture as by ancestral practice—has voiced a loud, earnest, and exuberant declaration of personhood through oil painting and airbrushing, sculpture, beadwork, and wearable fashion and regalia. Taking the stage in one of the international art world’s most prestigious venues, his work is a call to action, revolution, and love and celebrates a worldwide Indigenous community of living cultures and hearts.

After performing with his work again in 2023 for They Come From Fire at the Portland Art Museum, Jeffrey and US Pavilion cocurator Kathleen Ash-Milby asked me to join them in Venice as their drag clown–in-residence. I soon found myself making one of my role models laugh in meetings, and that was before I dressed up as Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft, who stole Indigenous relics and traipsed through Venice, to perform with his work for the third time, now scaling his central sculpture in the forecourt of the US Pavilion. My PlayStation drag was not an outlier: unlike common stereotypes of stoic Natives and antique traditional art commonly regarded as craft, Jeffrey’s work is as vibrant, joyful, and alive as the communities he represents.

In the weeks before Jeffrey’s Venice debut, we sat down to discuss self-determination and identity, audience and performance, acknowledging Indigenous makers, Nicole Kidman, the Biennale, and the artwork on the other side of this massive achievement.

Anthony Hudson: Hello, Jeffrey!

Jeffrey Gibson: Hi! Should I refer to you as Anthony or Carla Rossi?

AH: I am legion. I don’t have white clown paint on, so I’m happy being Anthony today. Thank you for asking! How are you doing?

JG: You know, I’m at a lot of different transition points, both as an artist and a human being. At the moment, I’m taking a pause from what has felt like a marathon. It’s been so much work to get to this point, and we still have a ways to go. I’m involved in a lot of projects right now, most of which are on the larger side. The works for Venice left last week: they were picked up, crated, and shipped off. The studio team and I have already started working on new pieces, which have been so interesting. It’s a really wonderful feeling, a good kind of fog.

Of course, I have other aspirations. I’m turning fifty-two this year, and I feel like my age is affecting what I want to take on going forward. Someone described it to me as looking toward the end of the branch rather than where the branch connects to the tree, and that makes sense to me. I’ve been writing a lot more lately, trying to listen to my voice and get the words down. I really want to experiment more, not that I think I’ve held back exactly, but my brain definitely could go to lots of other places that I don’t always let it go.

AH: Where might those places be?

JG: I’ve been exploring atmospheric and disruptive sound, which comes from my interest in music. So much of my personal journey has been about finding a voice, and as I’ve gained more confidence in my voice over the last fifteen years, I’ve wanted to do more with it. Sometimes my voice is more poetic, sometimes it’s more declarative; it can be soft like a whisper, but it can also be louder and more discordant than I’d ever expect. Along with sound, I’ve also been thinking more about movement. Getting older can mean deciding to engage your body more, and this might guide a performance, though I never know how it’s going to show up in the work.

AH: Hell yeah. As an artist myself, I don’t know what the work is until it’s done. When I think of your work—don’t you love it when people start talking about what they think of your work? How horrifying!—

JG: Depends on who it is, but yeah.

AH: Of course. When I think about your work, performance exists in it already. There’s high-dynamic movement. Bold color and forms. Titles taken from pop songs. I’ve performed in your exhibitions twice, and you even make costumes and regalia for performers. Didn’t you perform in an opera yourself?

JG: I did, Malinxe by Autumn Chacon and Laura Ortman. Autumn and Laura are two people who I just adore. They asked me to play La Llorona, a figure who has drowned their children but remains by the riverside, always ready to drag them from the water and drown them again. In Autumn’s version, La Llorona embodies the power and omnipotence of natural forces. I felt quite honored that Autumn saw me in this role, and I gave her everything that I could. It was cathartic for me to engage my body with more intention, to understand its capabilities without becoming obedient to expectation. I love the space I get into when I’m performing. It feels safe, bizarrely. I can act a fool, I can be delirious, I can give into anger, I can give into joy, into love. To do this in front of an audience is very freeing.

AH: Performance is like exposure therapy: it forces you to empathize and be embodied with an audience so that the ghost of expectation, the enemy of creativity, doesn’t follow you around.

JG: Expectation can be brutal. Being an artist or a creative person might look effortless from the outside, but it takes a lot of stamina to remind yourself that you have done this before, you will arrive some place, you will know that space and feel confident in it when you get there. I still haven’t watched the video of Malinxe, but I know that performing it felt good.

AH: Do you want to watch the video or are you like Nicole Kidman, who doesn’t watch her performances on screen?

JG: I am Nicole Kidman.

AH: The truth comes out! (laughter)

JG: I don’t have a hard-and-fast rule, but I tend not to read press. Or I might read it years later, when there’s enough distance to approach the work with some objectivity.

AH: We’re both Indigiqueer artists— do you use Indigiqueer? Do you use Two Spirit? These terms convey so many different things but can also limit. They’re modern and in English. They’re not traditional.

JG: It’s funny. With this transitional space that I’m in, my brain and body no longer want to carry these terms. Having said that, I’m more than happy to fulfill these roles if doing so supports these communities. Neither term offends me nor feels wrong, but I feel my future is not about that. I think about how my life has unfolded and all the things that have brought me to this point that are in my DNA and how I no longer feel the need to name them. That feels like a bold move to make right now, but it’s one I want to make. I want to feel like I’ve created room for people, but now we can also open the doors, look out on the landscape, and run in whatever directions we wish. I’m not refuting or dismissing the validity of identifying as Two Spirit, Indigiqueer, or gay. I know that because of the color of my skin, my body, my history, my ancestry, I view and navigate the world differently, and the world presents itself differently to me.

I make things, that’s what I do. That’s my role in the world. I think it’s easy for me to want to give to people and to encourage their joy in the present–I get a lot of joy out of that. — Jeffrey Gibson

AH: I love that. It’s a tricky space to occupy. Naming an identity is absolutely important for rights, for visibility, even for being Native. There are laws for defining “Native art,” which is determined by the maker’s identity. I’m of the don’t-label-me generation, so it’s wild for me to always be expected to define myself. Capitalism compels us to be one thing, to create a brand so the market can advertise it. Do you feel like you always have to be one thing?

JG: I think I have up to this point. I come out of the generation that fought intensely for representation and inclusion. That’s where my ambition really came from: You will include us. You will show us. We will be present. Witnessing and engaging with a younger generation for whom representation is no longer just enough is illuminating. The question now is “What if we were both the authors of and the audience for our own voices?” I think that is completely correct. In a capitalist world where we assign value, currency, to different classifications or identifications, representation is very important. Putting aside representation disallows that value system from continuing to operate on me. I have done what I know how to do through thinking about representation, and I will continue to do that, but I can set aside terminology and move forward representing myself. Self-identification might complicate things for some people, sure, but it’s so clear to me that it makes even less work for me to do. Giving in to who people present themselves to be is this amazing thing, and it doesn’t mean giving up.

AH: That’s a very Native American— I hate that term—very Indigenous idea of sovereignty and self-determination.

JG: That’s exactly where I learned it from. Listening and receiving is a way to oppose the tendency to define and impose and possess. As an artist, this has definitely opened things up for me in an incredible way.

AH: My least favorite question in art school critiques—besides “Why are you doing this?”—was “Who is the audience for this work?” You have audiences all over the world, so I’m curious, who do you make work for?

JG: Audience is interesting. The way that images and information circulate now, you can, on one level, determine your own audience. That said, I can make work for people like me, which is one place to start. When I work with museums, I tell them that I believe in making a show for Indigenous audiences as well as for Indigenous and queer audiences, but often they express concern, like, “Where are they? Who are they? Will they show up?” They do, of course, in greater numbers than institutions ever expect. But would they have shown up before the institution started speaking to them? Probably not, or not a large portion of them.

I don’t think the idea of addressing an audience is ever going to leave me. I’m meant to be engaged with others. I make things, that’s what I do. That’s my role in the world. I think it’s easy for me to want to give to people and to encourage their joy in the present—I get a lot of joy out of that. Somewhere in there, in a quiet moment, I get to see it happening and see myself experiencing it too. I’ve also tried to make work over the last twenty years that speaks to the many facets of my experience, which isn’t only rooted in Native cultures but also in the many places I’ve lived and the family I have. Dare I say, many intersections make up Jeffrey Gibson, and I feel responsible to honor all of them.

AH: I was hoping we’d get here. You had a very atypical upbringing.

JG: My mom and dad both grew up in the South: in Cherokee communities in Oklahoma and Choctaw communities in Mississippi. Great poverty. Both of my grandfathers, Tim Wilson and Homer Gibson, were sharecroppers at some point. In the 1960s, each established an Indian church, both Southern Baptist. They preached in Cherokee and Choctaw, their languages, to their Indigenous congregations. My mom and dad left those communities and went to boarding schools, and my dad joined the Army, serving as an engineer during the Vietnam War. Considering the racism of the South in that period, I think their decisions to leave were really about safety and survival.

I was born in Colorado Springs, where we lived for a very short period. Then we moved to North Carolina, where my father was a civil engineer for the government. From there we moved to Germany, New Jersey, Korea—I might be getting the order mixed up there—Maryland, and then Washington, DC. I moved to Chicago and then to London and New York City. All those experiences of being Native, being American, being a foreigner, being an indiscriminate race that nobody in the United States nor abroad could quite read are huge parts of my identity.

AH: When did you move to New York City?

JG: In fall 1999, with Rune, my husband. We met in graduate school in London in 1998 and got married in Norway before we moved.

AH: So the Vikings did discover America! (laughter) I’m from a military family, too, and military service, in light of assimilation, was one of the few paths available to Indigenous people here. It can be kind of dizzying to understand that history of military service and assimilation alongside my own politics and the historical saga of my ancestors. How have you grappled with that?

JG: It’s a lot to process. I’ve experienced the conundrum you describe in many ways in different periods of my life. My understanding of Native histories and their traumas got deeper in my teens, twenties, and thirties, and even now there are moments when I feel I’m just beginning to understand them on a deeper level. My grandparents’ and even my parents’ generation could not speak of the traumatic psychological and physical pain that they experienced. Why could they not speak of it? There’s a human misperception that if we don’t speak of pain, then it will move into the past, and we will heal. I can see now that that is not true. People who come from a traumatic history of colonization, we often neglect our feelings as a defense mechanism, but the past never really leaves us.

I hate using the word complex, because I feel like it doesn’t mean a whole lot right now, but this is where complexity really did help me understand how layered our perception of reality can be and how little I have to do with that. Yes, I could say that the way that I see it is the way that it is, but that would ignore all these other narratives through which people understand the past. I’m interested in how the past shows up, how what happened hundreds of years ago continues today. Did historical trauma disallow me—or did I allow it to disallow me—from establishing the voice I’m exercising now? I hope I’m not getting too lost in the weeds here, but I think that the way our identities exist amid all of this is not anyone’s sole responsibility. I’m shaped by my environment. When I think I’ve gained control over something or know what I’m doing, it’s a mistake of overconfidence.

We live in a world of continual distraction that disallows listening, but if we could carve out the space to listen, the animals will tell us, the wind will tell us, the sun will tell us, the land will tell us, and we will tell each other that our very existence in the present tense is a logical culmination of all the that has come before us. — Jeffrey Gibson

AH: You’re Cherokee and Choctaw. You’re also an American who was raised abroad. My grandma wasn’t an American citizen until the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, and now I pay more taxes each year than Donald Trump has in his life. What does representing this country mean to you? What is it like to hold space as a Native person while also representing the United States at the Venice Biennale?

JG: I know and can acknowledge the versions of “nation” and “homeland” that I have been taught, and I can also think about everything that comprises my historical lineage. Doing so, I feel I am at the end of a very long thread. We are all the living ends of very, very long threads. We live in a world of continual distraction that disallows listening, but if we could carve out the space to listen, the animals will tell us, the wind will tell us, the sun will tell us, the land will tell us, and we will tell each other that our very existence in the present tense is a logical culmination of all that has come before us. I have tried to extract myself from distraction as much as possible to be able to practice that, and being an artist has allowed me to do so, to a degree.

I don’t want to pretend like Venice fell into my lap. I was aware of it as something that I could aim for, as a public space to install my voice and say the things that I think are important. People will see and hear me, but I can’t control what they’re going to see and hear. I can only bring my voice. One way to address the complications of representing the United States and all that entails was research. I started looking back at the foundational documents of this country and thinking about where Native people have fallen within those documents, as well as within popular history from the nineteenth century to the present. Having collaborators was also very important to me. At the start, I thought about the things in my practice that I feel good about, and collaborations have been a big part of that. I had to think about how I could make opportunities for people in my community to experience this with me. It’s a full takeover.

AH: I love the idea of being the end of a very long thread. How does this show up in your work, in your life, in your cosmology?

JG: Mainly I talk to my grandmothers. We had very different relationships. My maternal grandmother, Annie Wilson, was very Christian and very conservative, but she eventually came around to respect that many of her family members were participating in traditional spiritual and ceremonial practices. At the end of her life, she started opening up to me about my great-grandfather’s abuse and the addiction issues that many people in my family had tried to sweep under the rug. Having all that information made things make more sense. On my dad’s side, Lily Gibson was one of the elders of our community. She and other women often got together in their Choctaw dresses and cooked over big iron kettles and spoke Choctaw to each other. She always kind of winked at me, and I’m pretty sure she knew I was gay. I talk to them because I think that they would be very proud and supportive of the things that I’m doing now, for myself and for our home communities. I also talk to Chief Phillip Martin, who was the tribal chief of the Mississippi Choctaw for twenty-eight years. I grew up with him as our tribal chief, and he supported me going to school in London. I wanted to teach on the reservation, but there was no space there for what I was doing. He told me that what served the community best was to go out in the world and be successful.

Cosmology raises the idea of precontact and postcontact life. I think about those unknown precontact individuals and how I might connect to them. We can acknowledge each other, and I imagine they know more about me than I know about them. Years ago I spoke with geologists Paul Weimer and Mike Flynn about the length of time that this planet has existed and where we show up on that timeline. Our presence is basically a millisecond of planetary time, and we are related by DNA to all the life that has come before us. That makes sense to me from the perspective of Indigenous philosophy, but it was strange to hear scientists say that we are the land, the land is us, and we will return to the land. It made me feel not so far removed from that unnamed, precontact individual. I don’t know if we’ve made the world better in this time. That’s the big question. On a good day, I feel very cared for in this lineage of spirits and ancestors, to be quite honest. I would be doing a disservice to my ancestors if I didn’t show up believing that they support me.

AH: How does that appear in the work?

JG: I don’t know, you stumped me. This is about where I’m going more than about where I’ve been. What has drawn me to experimenting with sound is what it does to us on a cellular level. Sound can heal, and when sound vibrations come through our bodies, they literally realign our cells. This goes back to knowledge that I want to believe was practiced precontact. Vibration comes from a bass guitar, a gong, a horn. It comes from snapping and clapping, singing and humming. You and I, humans, can engage over different expanses of time with our precontact ancestors, but it would be presumptuous to think that if we speak it will be in a language they’ll understand. Sound and movement might be more comprehensible. Music and dance come from the desire to organize sound and movement into a rhythm that can be understood. I don’t know if I’ll ever present this experimentation with sound and movement as an artwork, but it’s going to deepen other parts of my practice and come back to the surface.

AH: There’s an Indigenous cultural tendency toward listening to and receiving ideas and thinking them through. I see that in you and your work, but your artwork is also very loud. I’d say it’s positively confrontational. It’s present, it’s pronounced, it’s fearless. The first time I saw your work in person was at the Seattle Art Museum, in your Like a Hammer exhibition, which Carla made a weird video for where she pretended to know what art was. I was blown away by the punching bags in that show because you were not only Indigenizing these Western sports objects but also queering them. People, or white people in the art world, often talk about your work in terms of Indigeneity, but queerness often gets overlooked. I saw those punching bags as drag.

JG: Drag is an absolutely correct read. I don’t do drag, but I think for a lot of drag performers it’s an expression of survival that the audience gets to witness. I think the best drag is not necessarily about being entertaining but about seeing somebody publicly navigate their existence and the engagement they command by doing so. Drag brings up terms like kitsch and camp, which have also followed me around. When people referred to my bags as “utilizing camp,” I was like, Oh, they don’t understand it at all. These are not camp to me. What I put in there comes from a very sincere place of manifesting a space and a future that I dream of and desire. These desires originate from a place of fear, pain, and loss.

When I started the first punching bag, around 2011, I was just so angry. Every art event triggered this rage in me. I didn’t really know how to describe what I was feeling or where it was coming from, so I sought out a therapist. I went in feeling very capable, but the first session, oh my gosh, what came out was overwhelming. We ended up talking about the homophobia, classism, and racism that art spaces triggered. My therapist said that what was happening in my head was entering my body, but the two were not communicating. He recommended I work with a physical trainer to bring them together, and in one session, my trainer held up a punching bag and said, “Who do you want to hit? Who’s pissing you off?” But I couldn’t think of any one person, the bag was the societal condition that I inherited.

At the same time, I was traveling a lot to meet with traditional makers. I went to Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Oregon. People there were not making art per se, but they were quilting, silversmithing, working in parfleche, or doing quillwork. I recorded conversations with them about their motivations for making, and a lot of it came from a desire to support themselves and their communities by producing their own clothes, music, and domestic objects. It made me see how liberating it was to define yourself through your own daily practices, how making could be an expression of survival.

Every artist in New York City seemed to be angling to get a show in Chelsea, but I was fresh from these experiences that felt much more urgent and impactful. I continued to work with the trainer, and one day while hitting the bag, all these experiences conflated, and I realized that “dressing” the bag would disengage my desire to hit it. Instead, projecting onto the bag these people I had just met, who had such deep convictions about making and existing, commanded respect. I experienced a vision that I was going to bead the punching bag instead. I had some knowledge of beading, so I got out my seed beads and started working. I really didn’t know what I was doing. The first bag took probably a year and a half to make.

At the Pavilion in Venice, there are many vintage beadwork pieces created by unknown makers installed among the sculptures and paintings. I wanted to pay respect to them and place them in a global history and economy of artmaking and materiality and labor. That’s one of the goals that emerged while preparing for the Biennale. The circumstances in which Native people made incredibly crafted objects are not always clear, but whether it was for practical, ceremonial, or aesthetic ends, making them meant creating spaces of freedom. You could see a future and a present, you could see a strength, a wisdom, a story, and you could feel free in these objects. You’d have to go back pretty far to find objects that are made exclusively from local materials. Beads and metals and fabrics from France, England, Spain, regions of Africa, from all over the world, are in these objects. Not only have the makers of these objects not been named but they also haven’t been acknowledged as having made artistic choices. Their autonomy hasn’t been acknowledged. With this project, we’re trying to gather and distribute as much information as we possibly can.

AH: Stunning. I love that you’re bringing an Indigenous road show to Venice. It sounds like self-determination. “Who I am is who I am and who am I is Nicole Kidman.”

JG: (laughter) Venice has been on my list of dreams for some time, but I’m still looking forward to what comes next. I have learned a ton and experienced an incredible amount of generosity and support from people who I really admire. These relationships have changed me for the better. I think I envisioned my life to a certain point, and that narrative has suddenly come to an end. I now have this vision of being an old man painter, painting in a barn, just scrubbing color on a surface. It’s pretty quiet. I have to admit, I’m getting ready to move part of my studio practice into a barn where I can be by myself sometimes. Rune has always said that if anyone really wants to understand me, they should watch 9 1⁄2 Weeks. I was obsessed with that movie, but I didn’t understand what he was talking about at first. Then I got it: it’s Farnsworth, the painter in the barn, the artist uncomfortable with being a public persona. For as big as I’ve pushed my work to be, I’m aware that my aspirational self is actually this quiet old man making some humble paintings.

AH: That sounds like such a welcome respite. What’s giving you hope during this profoundly dark time?

JG: That’s a really hard question. Every day we wake up and have to make a decision about what we’re going to do. There are some things that I know and feel strongly about, but in the big picture, I am a faith-based practitioner. I’m not referring to religion, but I do pray and believe that faith is important. If we look back on periods of history that have been really, really dark, we can also see a way to survive them. Time passes, and we are hurt. We need to heal, we need to recover, and through persistence I know it’s possible. There’s beauty and strength in people for sure, and I draw a lot from that. I know that there are people who I can reach out to for their counsel.

I’ve taught for a very long time, and I’ve always told artists that it’s okay to play tricks on yourself to keep focused on the work. One of the tricks of being in a studio space is that we’re in a bubble. We’re in an old school, and my team is here with me, and there’s a lot of conversation that goes on about making art, which we love. In the private world of my studio space, I feel free to speak and feel in a way that I don’t in public. I feel so excited about the work here, and it’s not until it goes out into the world that I start getting scared of people’s responses. Of course, by that point, it’s probably too late for me to really change anything.

Venice—I can’t believe this happened. I’ve wondered if I overdid it, but that’s me and that’s what I do. I definitely made the most of being in a space where I could ask myself, What do you really want to make? Everyone involved, my team and all the artists, writers, and performers, did it without compromising anything, and I’m very proud of what’s there. It’s absolutely me.