Hitting History Hard
Frohawk Two Feathers is re-writing American history. In his current exhibition at Morgan Lehman Gallery, "Heartbreaking and Shit, But That's the Globe. The Battle of Manhattan," he has re-imagined the conquest of North America from a very different point of view than what you were taught in grade school.
Exquisite drawings done in the style of 18th formal portraiture depict a radically new narrative of American history. In Frohawk's America the European colonialists, residents of "Frengland" (an alliance of the historically opposed colonial empires of France and England) have gone to war with "New Holland." Both sides have formed constantly shifting allegiances with local Native tribes. Rather than the expected portraits of White Colonialists the works in this show portray various characters of the Native army. Both men and women are posed in a formal, somewhat stiff manner, yet the drawings pulse with life and excitement.
An elaborate narrative accompanies each drawing, a back-story of each character and the role they play in this grand parade of faux history. The show works on two levels. If one wanted, you could simply walk through the gallery looking at the drawings (and several faked "artifacts") and enjoy them for their virtuosity. The artwork stands well on its own. On the other hand, with a little time and your reading glasses you can dive into the strange and elaborate narrative that threads all of the work together. It is a totally engrossing, logically consistent story about empire building, conquest and the ways in which we create mythology from history.
Now here's the kicker: the drawings, as mentioned, are based on formal portraiture. They are beautifully painted in acrylic and ink on coffee and tea stained paper, which gives the works a faux ancient look. But as you draw closer you notice that the Native Americans portrayed, though in period costume bear all the markings of contemporary urban life. Tattoos, on their faces, necks and hands- some reminiscent of gang tags, some filled with longing for a loved one. This device fast-forwards the work immediately into the present--right now--and adds yet another level of complexity to the narrative.
This exhibition is both subtle and brilliant. Think about the macro-story in simple terms. Frohawk creates a giant tale where the White colonialists are dependent on the Brown Natives, an underground army, if you will, of street-wise mercenaries whom the Whites depend desperately in their battle for Empire and dominance. These portraits then both celebrate the bravery, treachery and lives of a revolutionary army and remind us that there is a completely contemporary parallel to this grand narrative. We live in a society that is both fearful and celebratory of what is called "urban culture." The tip-off is a drawing entitled "Paid advertisement for the Bartica Liberation Brigade." It depicts a handsome couple, a man and a woman snuggled together, he, proudly holding a pistol in the air. Reminiscent of a Black Panther poster from the 1960's or a defiant piece of street art, daring the authorities to act. Either way, it boldly promotes the possibility of revolution in a Colonial society. Frohawk hits it hard and once you've gotten this message then the entire body of work morphs yet again into a new narrative. A narrative that questions all of our notions about race and power and history in America, this is an exhibition that delivers on its promises--and then some.
Frohawk Two Feathers' "Heartbreaking and Shit, But That's the Globe. The Battle of Manhattan" through March 1 at Morgan Lehman Gallery 535 West 22nd St. 212- 268-6699 http://www.morganlehmangallery.com/
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