Feb 12th, 2020, 02:53 PM

Decolonizing European Artwork

By Shandiin Vandervere
Inside the Louvre, one of Europe's most famous museums. Image Credit: Flickr/Richard Cassan
Inside the Louvre, one of Europe's most famous museums. Image Credit: Flickr/Richard Cassan
European art is being reimagined to show that indigenous cultures are still here and thriving.

The West, particularly Europe, have dominated the art world for centuries, attracting immeasurable admiration but leaving little room for minority artists to shine. Indigenous artist Lehi Thundervoice Eagle has set out to address this problem, using Instagram as a platform for his work. Many of his art pieces are recreations of internationally famous paintings but with a native twist, aiming to remind viewers of indigenous art and culture still thriving to this day despite European colonization.

Gustav Klimt's "The Kiss." Image Credit: Flickr/Arria Marcella

Thundervoice Eagle's rendition of Gustav Klimt’s famous painting of “The Kiss” is one such creation. The original, a staggering six-foot square filled with life-sized figures curled in an intimate embrace, is currently on show at the Belvedere in Vienna. The Atelier des Lumières in the 19th arrondissement of Paris also had the painting displayed as an immersive experience where the art piece was digitally projected on the walls of a towering exhibit. 

Klimt was known for his “Golden Period,” which used influences from Byzantine mosaics to create stunning pieces flecked with gold. The artist’s work has been interpreted as representing the mystical union of spiritual and erotic love and the merging of the individual with the eternal cosmos. The two figures in “The Kiss” depict male and female energies through deep shades of back and grey blocking and soft, flowing scrolls.


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In Thundervoice Eagle’s portrayal of this masterpiece, many aspects of the original have been changed, the most striking of which is the headdress adorning the male figure. Customarily worn by the Plains Indian and Sioux tribes, this feathered crown is symbolic of a person’s bravery and power. The tradition of wearing such an intricately made headdress has now spread beyond its origins to many different tribes, each adding to the uniqueness of the headdress’ appearance. Still, though, every feather keeps its significance over time. A headdress is begun when the tribe recognizes a warrior as an adult member of the community and he is awarded a single feather to symbolize his coming-of-age. The crown is then painstakingly crafted, with any subsequent feathers being added only when a warrior committed an act of intense bravery.

The painting also alters the woman’s features, shifting her skin from a porcelain white to a deeper shade of tan. Her forehead is covered with red paint and her hair is changed from a blonde pinup to long, flowing locks of black hair. 

Grant Wood's "American Gothic." Image Credit: Bēhance/Steve Simpson

“American Gothic” by Grant Wood is another subject of Thundervoice Eagle's reimaginings. The 20th-century American artwork on display at the Art Institute of Chicago features a local pair, whose relationship to one another has been long debated, from the small Midwestern town of Eldon. Seemingly quite unhappy, the woman in the painting is pictured with a deeply furrowed brow and is gazing into the far-off distance. Meanwhile, to her left is a man sternly staring head-on while grasping his pitchfork.

The underlying feeling Wood depicts this couple as having is generally sad and somber, which could be attributed to the models having never met in real life and lacking any chemistry for Wood to capture. The little farmhouse in the background built in the American gothic architectural style is actually the main reason for the painting’s creation. This type of home was quite popular during the Great Depression because it mimicked the tall and intricate cathedral buildings without being too costly for the average American family to afford. 


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Thundervoice Eagle is able to add an extra layer of meaning in his remaking of “American Gothic.” His spinoff is again centered on indigenous life, this time placing native individuals in a more modern time. With button-down shirts and overalls, you can clearly see that this couple is living in a recent era. However, the home shown in the background is not a building, but a teepee. Again used by mainly Plain Indians, these teepees were constructed because Sioux tribes relied mainly on buffalo as their food source and were forced to migrate with the herds. Teepees offered shelter and formed easily portable communities that could be moved and transported as the seasons changed. 

Of course, the somber irony present in Thundervoice Eagle’s rendition must be acknowledged. All of the native tribes who lived in “America” before white settlers arrived were later forced to abandon their sacred homelands as colonists took over the land and its resources. This piece, showing indigenous people being forced to assimilate with the then-struggling colonists, is often forgotten when society refers to “American” culture. Native people lived through the Great Depression just the same as all other Americans and are still alive today under systemic oppression. This cannot be forgotten.

Johannes Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring." Image Credit: Flickr/Public Domain Photos

Another well-known art piece that Thundervoice Eagle transformed is the “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” an oil painting by Johannes Vermeer. A fictional young woman pictured with a turban and a uniquely large pearl earring is currently on display at The Hague in the Netherlands. Surrounded by a dark background, the girl stares intimately over her shoulder into the viewer’s eyes. Her face is one of softness and innocence and is said to be emblematic of the general view of women at the time. 


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In Thundervoice Eagle’s remake, a large turquoise stone replaces the revered pearl earring. Turquoise is a sacred stone to many native American cultures, particularly in the Navajo tradition, as the stone is believed to possess a direct connection to their sacred homeland, Dinetah. Instead of a turban, the young woman’s hair is tied back in a traditional Navajo hairstyle called a tsiiyéeł. It is a symbol of Navajo identity and culture and is worn by both men and women in the tribe. The technique used to make this tsiiyéeł is a sacred custom handed down through generations and is seen as a form of prayer when tied. The woman's face in Thundervoice Eagle's recreation is also one more of determination and defiance than her original counterpart.


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Lehi Thundervoice Eagle has recreated many other famous pieces including “The Creation of Adam,” shown above, and “The Birth of Venus.” "Throughout the years, my people have gone through significant changes due to the removal and assimilation process," explained Thundervoice Eagle in an interview with Galore. "Since that time, it's been a battle to salvage parts of our culture." Building upon the work of famous Western artists has proved an effective way to make audiences stop and think about the one-sided perspective they see in popular art, shifting attention to the intricate history and beauty of indigenous cultures. Though Europe has been at the heart of producing painted masterpieces for many, many years, perhaps it's time to recognize native artists as a source for equally breathtaking art.