Tags for: Preserving Matrilineal Culture
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Preserving Matrilineal Culture

Wendy Red Star discusses her work in Picturing Motherhood Now
Nadiah Rivera Fellah, Associate Curator of Contemporary Art
December 3, 2021

Wendy Red Star


Raised on the Apsáalooke (Crow) reservation in Montana, Wendy Red Star makes work informed by both her cultural heritage and her engagement with many forms of creative expression, including photography, sculpture, video, fiber arts, and performance. An avid researcher of archives and historical narratives, Red Star seeks to incorporate and recast her findings, offering new and unexpected perspectives in work that is at once inquisitive, witty, and unsettling. Red Star holds a BFA from Montana State University, Bozeman, and an MFA in sculpture from the University of California, Los Angeles. She lives and works in Portland, Oregon.

Nadiah Rivera Fellah: The newly commissioned work Amnía (Echo) that you created for picturing Motherhood Nowfeatures portraits of your daughter, yourself, and an archival photograph of your great-great-grandmother, Her Dreams Are True. How did you discover that portrait of your great-great-grandmother?

Wendy Red Star: I was a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellow at the National Museum of the American Indian a few years ago. During one of my trips to Washington, DC, I looked at Crow Nation objects in the NMAI’s holdings. One photographer, Fred E. Miller, who lived on the Crow Reservation at the turn of the 20th century, had recorded the names of the subjects he photographed.

One woman’s name was Her Dreams Are True, the literal translation from the Crow language. And it clicked—oh, I’m related to this woman! I realized she was my father’s mother’s grandmother. Her English name was Julia Bad Boy-Bear Ground. It was phenomenal to find that photo, which was taken at the Bureau of Indian Affairs on the Crow Reservation around 1898.

Amnía (Echo) 2021. Wendy Red Star (American, b. 1981). Archival ink on paper, board; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist

Nadiah: How did you choose the title Amnía (Echo) and what is its meaning in the Crow language?

Wendy: My niece’s Crow name is Amnía, which means “echo,” chosen for her by my father. When I asked him about the literal translation, he said it also means “riverbank.” If you stand on a riverbank and shout, he explained, your voice echoes; that is why the word has a dual meaning. I am often humbled when I learn things like this, because it gives me a window into the way the Crow language and perspective works, and the Crow way of being in the landscape.

Amnía is the perfect example of that. My aunt, who performed the prayer for my niece’s naming ceremony, added another layer to the meaning of the word for me. She said, “You have to be careful what you say, because it echoes in the world, and comes back to you.” So this artwork is about channeling that expression in multiples, as well as thinking about the generations and the connections through lineage, and thinking of Her Dreams Are True as echoing through me and my daughter.

Nadiah: I love that the word amnía captures a multivalency. The artwork itself is multivalent, in the sense that it is a photograph, sculpture, and installation, and in the sense that it has so many connotations. What was the experience of posing and photographing yourself and your daughter, Beatrice, for the other two portraits?

Wendy: Beatrice and I have a history of collaborating, but she retired herself at 11; she’s 14 now. When I asked if she wanted to do this project with me, she said yes, but I felt a little pressure in working with her at this age. She told me that now she’s able to see images of herself, from past photographic works we’ve done together, on TikTok. It’s a totally different landscape for teens now, the way they use social media and share images.

This exhibition is the perfect context to consider our history of working together. Now that she’s becoming independent, she’s thinking differently about the way that she wants to present herself in the world. When we sat down to take the photos, she was wonderful. She actually photographed me; that was really moving and beautiful. It felt like another level of us working together, and a different type of collaboration that we haven’t had before.