Arts and Culture / Magazine Feature

‘WhatTRIBE’ exhibit raises questions about cultural identity

Douglas Miles’ stencil portrait of student Nancy Lien is part of the ‘WhatTRIBE’ exhibit running through May 3 at the University of Denver Museum of Anthropology. Photo: Greg Glasgow

What tribe are you?

Organizers of a new exhibit at the University of Denver Museum of Anthropology say there a lot of ways to answer that question: Navajo, Scottish, Jewish — but also poet, writer, teacher, student.

“WhatTRIBE,” featuring the work of Native American artist Douglas Miles, runs through May 3 at the museum in the basement of Sturm Hall. Working in conjunction with DU’s Native Student Alliance, Miles created graffiti-style stencil portraits of members of the University community, accompanied by personal statements from the subjects. Among those featured in the exhibit are assistant English Professor Billy Stratton, an expert in Native American literature, and students like Jose Guerrero, a well-known slam poet in the Denver scene.

“It’s not just based on color anymore,” says junior and NSA co-chair Amanda Williams, one of the exhibit’s organizers, in reference to the show title. “Jose, when we asked him what tribe he is, he said, ‘Well, I’m a poet before anything else.’ It’s about crossing the stereotypes and how you personally identify yourself.”

Miles, an artist and founder of Arizona-based Apache Skateboards, also has created What Tribe projects in other cities. When he was asked by representatives from NSA to come to campus to talk about his work, he was inspired to create the portraits and a Denver What Tribe exhibit.

“DU — and Denver itself — is a lot more progressive than people give it credit for,” he says. “They held one of the presidential debates here. By bringing these people together, by having the show here at DU, to me it was a perfect place to start the conversation about respecting people from different tribal and ethnic and diverse backgrounds. I felt like this city, this campus could handle it. I think it was also important to create a conversation around the issues of stereotypes or cliché or even institutional racism in a really positive way, like an art show — using art to have that conversation as opposed to me hitting you on the head with a sign.”

In addition to the portraits, the show also includes information about recent cultural controversies including the Gap’s “Manifest Destiny” T-shirt and the upcoming “Lone Ranger” movie starring Johnny Depp as Tonto.

But in the end, Williams says, the show is about each visitor’s reaction to the artworks and the questions they raise about one’s own cultural identification.

“Even after they leave the gallery, we want them to question themselves: What tribe? It will stay with them for a while,” she says. “It’s more of a personal reaction we want out of these people than for them to relate to us. We want them to relate to themselves more than anything else.”

“What TRIBE” runs through May 3 in the University of Denver Museum of Anthropology, room 102 in Sturm Hall. Museum hours are 9 a.m.–4 p.m. Monday through Friday. An opening reception is scheduled from 4–7 p.m. April 4; Douglas Miles will speak at 5 p.m.


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