Museum of Contemporary Native Arts

Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds

In Our Language, 1982 Computer light billboard, 20 x 40 feet Courtesy of the artist

 

By Bradley Pecore

Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds was born 1954 in Wichita, Kansas. As a central leader, witness and participant in the emergence of an Indigenous epistemological consciousness of a generation, his work spans nearly four decades. He received his BFA from the University of Kansas in 1976 and continued his education at the Royal College of Art, in London, England. In 1979 he received a MFA from Temple University and has served on the faculty at the University of Oklahoma since 1988 as Professor of Native American Studies.  Heap of Birds has exhibited internationally in the diverse mediums of signage, monumental sculpture, painting, print, drawing and installation.

In 1982, Heap of Birds’s first major public art installation In Our Language projected his text-based prescription in New York City’s Times Square. This groundbreaking work gained international recognition. The artist has exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, The National Gallery of Canada, The Australian Museum of Contemporary Art, Documenta in Kassel, Germany, the Association for Visual Arts Museum in Cape Town, South Africa, the Hong Kong Art Center, the Bandung Institution of Technology in Indonesia and the Venice Biennale in Italy.

Heap of Birds has served as a visiting lecturer in England, Western Samoa, Thailand, South Africa, Spain, Northern Ireland, Sweden, Zimbabwe, Italy and Australia. Awards for his advancement of contemporary art discourse include those from the National Endowment for the Arts, Rockefeller Foundation, Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation and the Andy Warhol Foundation. He served as a visiting professor at Yale University, Rhode Island School of Design and Michaelis School of Art, University of Cape Town.

Heap of Birds is noted for articulating a transgressive norm. He achieves this by transcribing history with text; specific messages are utilized as a record of time, place and hegemonic privilege. In the 1982 work In Our Language, a computerized billboard reverses the script, occupying the space with Indigenous language melded with English to create phrases such as “IN OUR LANGUAGE /TSISTSITAS “CHEYENE”/ SPEAK OF VEHOE” (Vehoe in the Cheyenne language means spider). This piece manifests a Cheyenne welcoming colonists into Manhattan, an imagined memory of an Indigenous episteme but one that is just as suggestive as the historical illusion of American Indigenous representation in modern history.

This conceptual point of view was yet again demonstrated in 2007 with the Denver Museum of Art’s commissioned public art installation titled, Wheel or Nah Kev Ho Eya Zim, translated as “We are always returning back home again.”[1] In this work, Heap of Birds produced ten monumental red porcelain-covered and steel-forked panels placed in a fifty-foot diameter circle. The panels featured screen-printed semiotic inscriptions that reference extermination, ancient pictography, astrological bodies and pillars of shared understanding like respect, encapsulating the interconnectivity of Indigenous science and philosophy. The positioning and writing of this installation mark millennia of Indigenous knowledge, systematically intervened to commemorate nuanced views of colonial policy and global Indigenous cooperation. The sculpture itself is aligned with astrological bodies; at the summer solstice the sun rises between two forked panels. The wheel reveals a reintegration of Indigenous thought that marks time. Wheel is similar to his other installations in Time Square, South Africa and Venice in its symbolic rootedness to a specific geographical location and reference to local Indigenous histories.

The west’s historical amnesia is directly confronted in Heap of Birds’s multifaceted works. This intervention in the Western canon articulates Indigenous political realities and reconciles knowledge power. Heap of Birds surmises that art serves indigeneity:  “It is clear that Native peoples have chosen art as their cultural tool and weapon.”[2]


 

[1] Jackson W. Rushing, “The Prehistory of Wheel: Symbolic Inversions and Traumatic Memory in the Art of Edgar Heap of Birds,” in [Re]inventing the Wheel: Advancing the Dialogue on Contemporary American Indian Art (Denver, CO: Denver Art Museum, 2008), 71.

[2] Lucy R. Lippard, “Signs of Unrest: Activist Art by Edgar Heap of Birds,” in Most Serene Republics: Edgar Heap of Birds (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, 2008), 17.

Additional Resources compiled by students in Contemporary Native American Art History course at the Institute of American Indian Art, Spring 2013

Web-based Resources:

Artantide.com: Artists and Works. Web.http://www.artantide.com/artisti_BiografiaArtista?lang=2&idArtista=345

“Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds”. Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies at University of Minnesota Driven to Discover. 2013. http://www.chgs.umn.edu/museum/responses/heapOfBirds/

Pomona College Museum of Art. NUANCE OF SKY: EDGAR HEAP OF BIRDS INVITES SPIRIT OBJECTS TO JOIN HIS ART PRACTICE. January 22- April 14, 2013. http://www.pomona.edu/museum/exhibitions/2013/nuance-of-sky/index.aspx 

Pitzer College. “Edgar Heap of Birds talks about the ‘Native Hosts’ installation”. http://vimeo.com/60673043

Selected Bibliography:

Wilkins, Russell. “Revisions.” Banff Centre Press, 1992. 

Horton-Trippe, Shelley. Intercultural Media Forum: Land of Enchantment. New Mexico, 1992.

Hanna, Deividre. Now Art Monthly: Visuals: Painting Native Justice, p. 29. New York, 1987.

Glueck, Grace. The New York Times: Art: Modern Works of American Indians. New York, 1984.

Conhelm, Maryanne. Philadelphia Inquier: His Art Speaks of Lost Nations. Philadelphia, 1980. 

Wheel, 2005 Procelain on steel, 144 x 24 x 24 inches each 50 foot diameter Courtesy of the Denver Art Museum