May 6, 2009

Beyond the Chief by Edgar Heap of Birds

"Beyond the Chief" by Edgar Heap of Birds, 2009

We are privileged to have an installation by Hock E Aye Vi/Edgar Heap of Birds on the campus of the University of Illinois. I wrote about being a docent with the work in the previous post. But I wanted to reflect a little more on this powerful work. The backwards writing (FIGHTING ILLINI), which refers to the name of the University of Illinois sports teams, struck me first as mirror writing, which then led me to think about reflection. The way in which Heap of Birds prompts reflection by the use of official-looking signage along an ordinary campus street strikes me as a supremely effective way to repetitively insert the question of “who is hosting whom” in the landscape. It not only encourages reflection, but a reflexive query, “how do I fit in this picture?” because the pedestrian IS in the scene as one walks by.

All of the peoples named in the signs at one time lived in and with this land. Many were forcibly removed, or killed, but of course their descendants continue to live today, mostly not in Illinois. This land grant university is built upon land that does not belong to it…as various broken treaties and outright theft attest. So, Heap of Birds prompts us to reverse the post-colonial claims by reversing the writing. Further, he reclaims the land, in a sense, by installing signs that remind us of those who have come before, and the land that nurtures us. We re-read the landscape.

The signs are declarations: straightforward statements that subtly prompt questions. The metallic, highway- sign surfaces seem official yet make the observer wonder about other directions and instructions that should be questioned. They are ironic and funny too. I like the juxtaposition of the signs with the regular no parking sign and the parking meters. Heap of Birds’ signs are street furniture that call for attitudinal shifts and policy changes. I fully support the purchase of this work so that we can have permanent reminders of the history and present/ce of indigenous people on campus in the form of this public art work.

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