Keri Atuambi Silver, Gold and Diamond Post Earrings – Photographer, Evan Sanders
On a personal note, I find Keri Ataumbi’s work to be fascinatingly magnetizing. It seems to carry a message within it’s allure; a rooted essence, a deeper understanding camouflaged by things we already know to be beautiful. And you discover a small something about yourself, about the wild world just by looking, because her work makes you see it. It pulls you in. There is character and fire and strong breaths and desire and sunsets and the sound of bare feet on earth and strange dreams and delicate bonds and fierce love, all in an earring. The woman behind the work is equally fascinating, passionate and strong, and I recently sat down with her over the phone to ask some questions regarding her acknowledgement in the Vogue article “Six Indigenous Designers are Using Fashion to Reclaim Their Culture”. It was 10a.m. outside of Santa Fe, and I suppose she had already finished her morning run through the Cerrillos Hills and necessary chores on her 20 acre property, and was foraging through her studio looking for a specific piece of silver when I called. The following words are purely hers, a combination of this current interview and a previous one.
Excerpts taken from an interview with Keri by Christian Allaire in August 2017
In creating wearable art the artist develops a concept and design, addresses the relationship between the object and the body, and thus engages in and deepens the discussion of fine art.
Regarding the title of the recent Vogue article you were featured in, “6 Indigenous Designers are Using Fashion to Reclaim Their Culture” — What is fashion to you?
This is a big question because fashion is the most accessible and personal expression of ourselves. As a child you can express yourself with how you want to dress if you decide to wear pink or green, or blue or black, and you get a response from the things you wear. On a larger cultural level, fashion has incredible and very grass roots power to create change. If you go to a pow wow you can read information from the clothing people are wearing. This is also true of street wear. People’s fashion choices, whether it is t-shirt slogans, ethical or non-ethical materials, or their own embellishments carry information from the wearer’s ideals, political opinions, personal tastes, etc. Personally I am interested in making work that combines elements that we as Indigenous people hold valuable (elk teeth, buffalo, feathers, etc) with elements that are considered valuable in the popular culture (diamonds, high carat gold, precious stones, etc.). There is a beauty that happens in combining different value systems through material that is inclusive.
As an artist in today’s fervent world, do you feel it is important to make a statement? If so, what is that message you hope to translate for people?
The artist’s position in society is to be a critical thinker, express questions and inspire people to ask questions. I am highly interested in beauty, and by that I don’t mean “that is so pretty”, I mean “that sunset is so beautiful because there are so many factors making it so”. The fire that is raging across the country, the smog over our cities, the wonderful rains, whatever the factors are, including the negative ones contribute to the sunset. The beauty I am interested in is not what it looks like on the surface, I am interested in a wholeness that creates something meaningful. As an artist I have the opportunity to create something that talks about larger issues, and do it in a venue that is attractive, that people want to be around, that people want to wear.
How do you determine, or can you explain, the process of consulting with your communities elders to determine what historical and spiritual references are acceptable to portray in your work?
Well, that is just growing up Native. I grew up on the rez, and I grew up with a very intelligent mother, a very intelligent sister, and a very intelligent Auntie. I do a lot of research both with the elders of my community, my family members, through museum collections, and academic writing when I am developing pieces. This country was built on colonialism and there is a fine line that you have to a walk between selling your culture and expressing your culture. I am very conscious of some elements of my culture that are inappropriate to share through my work, and other elements of my culture that can be a tool to help create connections and honor our traditional aesthetics. Therefore, my work is a platform to educate and share my culture in a non-appropriated manner. The materials I use along side the visual references to oral history, myth or traditional objects allow me to create adornment that does just that. In the world we live in today you need to ask yourself, “what are you willing to give away? What are your limits?”
Indigenous advocacy, from pipeline protests to Idle No More, is on the rise. What is left to be done? How can fashion contribute to these movements?
There is so much left to be done and I trust it will not be squashed yet again. Fashion is the key and one of the most powerful tools we have. My mother, Jeri Ah-be-hill started wearing her traditional clothes everyday with her own added personal twist in the 1960’s. She wore t-dresses and mocs to the grocery store, to work, to travel and if she didn’t have a t-dress on, her outfit and presentation of self was distinctly Native. Growing up with her as my role model I watched her engage and educate anyone who interacted with her because of her fashion appeal. She also influenced the younger Native population to embrace and be proud of who they were and where they came from instead of buying into the mentality of the residential schools which she was a product of. Fashion and adornment is an extraordinary tool not only to educate and engage the larger population, but to encourage our Indigenous youth to learn, embrace, respect and share who and where we come from and where we want to go as communities.
You and your sister, Teri Greeves, are both highly respected and gifted artists. Do you influence each other? Have you ever thought of collaborating with each other?
We visit all the time, we talk shop all the time, although we have different approaches to how we make our work. We did do a piece together, and it is in the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture’s collection. Collaboration work with other artists is very unique and perhaps it is because my sister and I are so close personally that so far making things with each other is not where we have had an interest in connecting. That being said, we are working on something now, but it is not a high pressure piece. I did a portion of it about a year ago and I am not sure if she has had time to work on it yet. So you never know!
What are some important aspects of the Kiowa culture to you personally?
It is who I am, I would not breathe without it.
Read the Vogue article, “Indigenous Designers are Using Fashion to Reclaim Their Culture”.
View Keri Ataumbi’s beautiful jewelry and artist bio on the Four Winds Gallery website.