How Can a Poster Sing?

The process of creating art and sharing it with a broad audience through technology and printing drew me to a career as a graphic designer. Posters can be made quickly and disseminated to hungry eyes and open minds. We see them as placards, broadsheets, billboards; they’re hung in lit marquees and pasted on walls throughout cities. But how can a poster sing, or make a musical sound with its “voice”?

Like many Indigenous/Native American/First Nation peoples, I believe the universe is alive. A vibrating consciousness of energy exists in all matter. We use these energies to exist, nurture, and create. A poster isn’t seen as living, as are culturally important items like a ceremonial mask or sacred like a pipe, but I do believe that we imbue it with energy and spirit and that it sings the message we impress upon it. 

So if it’s singing, what are we listening for? 

I am looking for tones of celebration and/or protest. Tones of celebration promote Indigenous stories, culture, faith practices, and heritage. Tones of protest can both educate and liberate in matters of human rights (erasure, genocide, racism), land rights (colonization), and environmental rights (working against capitalism and extraction). When I notice a poster emanating these tones I ask these questions: Does it appear to be both of a moment and timeless? Is it accessible to audiences outside of one’s tribe or Nation? Is the message understandable without a translation? Did you learn something? Are you enamored with the craft? Does its message stay with you after seeing it? Can you see a part of yourself in its meaning? Does it radiate joy? The more the answer is yes, the more the poster is in harmony with other Indigenous works. 

Scholarship exists on Native American painting, drawing, weaving, sculpture, pottery, beadwork, clothing, and contemporary art. Indigenous graphic designers are only now attaining enough critical attention that they can no longer be racially excluded, and it’s time for them to be addressed in design histories and to gain greater representation in the field. 

But where can we find their posters? Having grown up close to Washington, DC, it’s become second nature for me to look to the Smithsonian Institution’s collection. Sure, I have issues with looting and the mis- or decontextualizing, mistranslating, or mishandling of Indigenous artifacts in museums, but I appreciate that post-pandemic many museums have stepped up their game to make their collections a little more broad and accessible.

While looking through the poster collection of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), I saw reproductions of fine art illustrations, drawings, paintings, powwow advertisements, museum exhibitions filled with pottery or sculpture, educational language syllabaries, calendars, calls to action for census documentation, government propaganda, and more. Among some other good finds, I happened upon a beautiful poster by an artist whose name I recognized: (Thomas) Ryan RedCorn.

The first thing that I noticed about the poster was its vibrancy. Set on a field of rich gold, fluttering ribbons in browns, rich clays, oranges, and highlights of white seem to undulate. Quills and stacked triangular forms adorn its crown. Organic leaf ornamentation sits at key shoulder and knee points. When your take a step back you can almost see the outline of an arrowhead, a kachina-like mask, or even the shoulders and back of a dancer. The typography simply states that it is an anniversary poster for the NMAI. Does this poster sing? It certainly does. I had to know more about it.

RedCorn is a writer, television producer, comedian, photographer, and graphic designer — truly an all-around creative artist. I was familiar with his comedy troupe, the 1491s. The troupe — also comprising Dallas Goldtooth, Sterlin Harjo, Migizi Pensoneau, and Bobby Wilson — have used humor to address weighty topics like colonialism and racist stereotypes. Initially harnessing the power of comedy in sketches on YouTube, live theater, and movies, in 2021 they entered the world of television with the comedy-drama series Reservation Dogs

After seeing his poster, I was able to chat with RedCorn. We shared stories on top of stories, as well as examples of his silkscreen works, website links to other reference material, and design files.

I began by asking how his design career got started. “By the time I graduated [from the University of Kansas], I had been doing more freelance work than I was doing homework. I started a t-shirt company called Democrates right before the 2004 election, and within a few months of that, it completely exploded.” RedCorn told me that the NMAI Anniversary poster — the one I noticed in the collection — came about because the Smithsonian had acquired a poster he designed for a 2008 event in Colorado for President Obama’s campaign. The museum then approached him and commissioned the larger anniversary work.

The 2008 work is a one-color print featuring a high-contrast image of Obama wearing a patterned tie evoking a Native design — a key point for RedCorn. In the background is a desaturated graphic form, energized with shapes that resemble lightning and crowned with a star. The form’s visual and symbolic language and Obama’s tie are in conversation, fully bound by the text “NATIVE VOTE 2008,” balancing the composition. Obama’s gaze is aimed at the star, suggesting an aspirational outlook and tying it in with the Native vote.

I started to notice visual similarities between this poster and NMAI Anniversary poster. I told RedCorn that I saw an arrowhead and a fancy dancer, among other things. He quickly responded, “no, none of that … it’s the flat style that comes out of the Kiowa Five.” The Kiowa Five, now recognized as the Kiowa Six, were a group of six Oklahoma artists working in the early 20th century. Using solid, bright colors, they painted minimal tableaus representing Kiowa life in a flat yet detailed style. Their body of work has made a lasting impression on many Native artists, not only in their painting style and cultural iconography, but also in their graphic language. RedCorn calls this a legacy language: “What happens after [the Kiowa Six] leave the scene is that the knowledge that existed in relationship to the visual language, the visual languages that mostly just exist in craft now, those are legacy languages because all of these pieces have word equivalents. There’s the Osage River. The triangles that you see on the end of these elongated stretches are our lightning references, but the diamond pattern itself — you’re going to find a lot of people who have a lot of different opinions on this.”

RedCorn also kindly shared some other posters from his flat file. Each was a constellation of my key curatorial priorities: sovereignty, Indigenous language, serious topics addressed through humor, and the use of a graphic language.

Every designer has a different perspective and style. But these differences also creates an expansive body of styles that can radiate off of just one story, thus enriching and strengthening said visual and cultural language overall. The stories of the poster or other artwork — its creative and physical production, its meaning to the artist or subject — are just as important as the finished object. The story is and will remain essential to contemporary Indigeneity. It matters. Understanding it strengthens community.

nila northSun’s powerful poem “the paper” (1982) has really stuck with me through my journey of writing, research, and curating. It begins with an elderly woman relating a story her father told her to the author. In the retelling, an Indian man walking down a trail sees a piece of paper on the ground but walks past it. Later, a “whiteman” passes, picks the paper up and reads it. He becomes “smart,” learning to read and write, and this leads to becoming the boss with factories. I keep hearing the line “if he picked up the paper / we would be smart.” I want to be able to say that further down the path, we did stop to pick up printed pieces of Indigenous/Native American-designed paper. We will do all that we can to learn about them, read them, decipher them, and share them. Learning their notes, melodies, and messages will only strengthen our communities and add such needed songs back into humanity. 

Editor’s Note: This is part of the 2023/24 Emily Hall Tremaine Journalism Fellowship for Curators and the second of three posts by the authorthe third of which will be an online exhibition published on Hyperallergic and sent to all newsletter subscribers.

Brian Johnson will discuss his work and research in an online event moderated by Editor-in-Chief Hrag Vartanian on Tuesday, March 26, 6pm (EDT)RSVP to attend.

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