Museum of Contemporary Native Arts

Bently Spang

By Catherine Mattes

Bently Spang is a Northern Cheyenne writer, curator, educator, and multidisciplinary artist whose mediums include mixed media sculpture, performance, video, and installation. His work is exhibited widely in the United States, Europe, Mexico, Canada, and South America. By combining organic and non-organic matter into sculpture, infusing performance with ironic humor and pushing the boundaries of video and installation, he creates Indigenous cultural spaces and expresses himself as a contemporary Cheyenne.

In The Healing Series (1992), Spang explores his identity within two worlds. The forced fusing of natural and man-made materials exposes tensions between indigeneity and Western ideals. In one piece in the series, aluminum is used to reference the superficiality of modernity, while sinew and catlinite (pipestone) provides cultural grounding. The series contains drawings, metal shields and tools typically used in healing processes. The series is both an investigation and affirmation of Spang’s cultural self.

In Spang’s performance work a futuristic alter-ego manifestation, called The Blue Guy, surfaces. The Blue Guy’s regalia is a cowboy hat, cowboy boots, and dark shades which are worn at all times. The shades deflect external negative energy, evoking the mirrors found on regalia, thus providing his alter-ego with a form of cultural expression. His blue skin is a deterrent to ideals of authenticity based on skin tone. By making his alter ego blue, Spang ponders what life would be like if skin pigment was not a deciding factor in how humans are located and valued.

Working collaboratively and engaging community is important to Spang’s practice. In Tekcno Pow Wow 1 (2001), Spang and Navajo artist Bert Benally combine dance, music and video to create new versions of cultural gatherings that are straddled in the past, present, and future. Tekcno Pow Wow, a continual project, showcases similarities between cultures using dance, interactive/robotic technologies and music. The structure is like a regular powwow, however here The Blue Guy plays the role of emcee and clown dancer; break-dancers compete with traditional dancers and scripted spontaneity takes over. Some performers in Tekcno Pow Wow wear culturally and conceptually wired outfits called Cyberskins, which are futuristic powwow regalia. These strategies allow Spang to explore the idea of ‘cyber’ from a Cheyenne perspective.

In the installation New American Relics – Redux (2009) Spang uses humour and role-play to contemplate how Indigenous people are often presented as a lost culture in museums and anthropology. Suspended glowing light boxes become objects of a faux lost culture known as the “vit-heut” in the year 3007. By taking on the role of anthropologist and naming the lost culture vit-heut, or white man in Northern Cheyenne, he cheekily reverses roles. The haunting glow of the objects is disquieting, yet the inclusion of a video of Spang during a faux interview adds comic relief. As with his other works, Spang provides space for viewers to ponder how culture is located, how it is expressed, and how it grounds First Peoples.