Natalie Ball’s sculptural assemblages in the Lobby Gallery of the Whitney Museum (on view through February 19, 2024) use any means necessary to disrupt perception and disassemble conventional paradigms of identity, indigeneity, and history. The show’s title—“bilwi naats Ga’niipci,” an expression from the artist’s childhood loosely translated from the Klamath language as “we smell like the outside”—immediately positions both viewer and artist as outsiders. From this perspective, what we think we might know soon peels away, as we encounter constructions that combine found and manufactured objects, deer hides, fabric, quilts, clamps, and other fastenings into purposeful mash-ups of traditions, references, and sources. Nothing stays within boundaries, and contrary juxtapositions abound. Each work reminds us of the risky business of assigning fixed labels to the multiplicities of our current social world.
Ball, whose heritage is a mix of Black, Modoc, and Klamath, lives and works in her ancestral homeland of Southern Oregon and Northern California. Her hybrid approach to art-making slyly mixes codes, allowing many narratives to circulate. Dance Me Outside (2009/23), an assemblage combining moccasins, cloth, and leather swatches trimmed with fringe, blue polyester pants, and a recycled star quilt mounted on a plywood square, initially beckons with a colorful, seemingly abstract arrangement. Closer examination troubles the pleasure of looking, however; interwoven within the quilt’s decorative patterns are copies of 19th-century newspapers with accounts of battles, executions, and the forced displacement of the Modoc peoples from their Oklahoma lands, which imbues the whole with a deeper narrative of trauma and loss.
This intermixing of materials that reference home life, community, ancestral heritage, and native traditions continues in the five other sculptures on view. Upending conventional practice, Ball’s seemingly random, unrestrained arrangements and innovative techniques overlay materials and references to childhood and assimilation with Indigenous customs and rituals to present a doubled vision that resists and critiques dominant white culture.
Children’s dressers replace pedestals, some pieces hang suspended from the ceiling, and most everything is held together by clamps or wrapped with rawhide and ribbons. Elk hides perform as tactile form and raw color, lending a presence and physicality to several assemblages while also referring to sustenance and traditional ways of hunting, gutting, and curing meat in Native American communities. Colorful ribbons, beads, fringe, glitter, and braids celebrate adornment and ceremonial practices, while repurposed quilts bear witness to Ball’s inheritance even as newspapers and other embedded collage elements trace ongoing histories of violence. Baby blankets, toys, baseball caps, headbands, and beadwork comment on accommodation as well as shared experiences and kinships. SpongeBob makes an appearance on a coverlet over a wooden cradleboard-like armature (Baby Board, 2023) and as a yellow-beaded pendant trophy set atop a chest of drawers alongside a deer head fashioned from hide with antlers made of toys and hair weaves (Sponge Bobby & The Fork-ed Horn Dancers, 2023). Joining together everyday items, references to popular culture, and craft tradition, Ball’s savvy works invite us to walk around, explore, and even play, as our identification with and assumptions about Indigenous cultures are brought down and replaced by a more inclusive, heterogeneous vision.