12 Jul Making a Statement
FOR KEVIN POURIER, creating art is about beauty, tradition, spirit, and, most importantly, it’s about making an impactful statement. “People say they don’t think Native art should be political, but I think it should be more political,” Pourier says. “Art is pretty, but I think it should also speak. It should also empower; to say you can have a voice. I’ve seen a lot of people without a voice, and I think that’s what leads a lot of people to be lost and turn to alcohol and drugs,” he says.
This passion gives Pourier’s work a definite edge, one recognized with the 2018 Santa Fe Indian Market Best of Show award. “No one’s safe in my art,” he says. “I don’t talk about races, but I talk about behaviors. Greediness, ego, that ‘fat taker’ behavior that we call wasi’chu, which means ‘takes the fat.’”
One of his pieces, titled Mixed Blood Guy, portrays the artist himself. “It was a self-portrait,” Pourier says, “and I had red fingers pointing at me this way and white fingers pointing at me the other way. And a white finger said, ‘Get back to the rez!’ And the red finger said, ‘Get off our rez!’ And another finger said, ‘You’re bad!’ And another said, ‘You’re good!’ So, it was about identity and that struggle of who we are, and how things can affect us.”
For half of his life, Pourier couldn’t imagine the possibility of an art career. But a fortuitous confluence of experiences set him on the path. “I got clean and sober,” he says. “I started participating in our ceremonies. And I started hanging out with people who have integrity and vision.”
At the time, he was working a “going nowhere” job, stacking panels in a particle board factory. “A monkey could have done it,” he says. “I felt like I was wasting my life away. I felt like I was being strangled. So, I started drawing on the job. And through that process of drawing every day — which wasn’t part of my job description — I got this buffalo. I could draw it today with my eyes closed. When I do a necklace or earrings today, it’s that same buffalo from 30 years ago.”
As part of his reentry into Oglala Lakota culture, Pourier began learning about traditional designs. And he started spending time with people who carved elk antlers. “One guy handed me a piece of antler and let me try carving on it,” he says. “And that was the beginning.”
Initially, he worked from others’ designs, but he knew he would eventually have to do his own thing. That’s when he tried a piece of buffalo horn. “The results were amazing,” he says. “And I just stuck with buffalo horn from then on.”
Pourier inlays designs on the horn with bits of sandstone, lapis, shell, and garnet, which he gathers in the Badlands, near his home on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. “We do a lot of rock hunting,” he says. “We go out and have flocks of sandhill cranes fly over and hear the coyotes howl. We’re really lucky. Those simple things make us grateful and remind us not to take anything for granted.”
While his materials and some design elements are traditional, his themes are not. “I don’t do images from the 1800s,” he says. “That’s my ancestors’ story. They chased the buffalo. They had war scenes to draw. But that’s not my story. I have my own story to tell.”
For many months prior to creating the award-winning belt for Indian Market, titled Winyan Wánakiksin, which translates to “women as defenders of others,” Pourier spent hours researching, interviewing, and collaborating with eight Native American women to create a design that reflects on “the political climate, the power of women, contemporary Native issues, and a shift in the Native art world that combines beauty with advocacy,” according to the Native Arts and Culture Foundation. Each individual portrait panel took about two weeks to complete.
“I’m living in the time of the Me Too movement, and I’m trying to bring awareness to that. These are issues and concerns that artists deal with. And that’s what we try to do with our work. We try to educate, to heal, and to bring awareness of this human journey that we’re all on.”