On the February afternoon that I view the E.K. Wimmer exhibit at the Wyoming State Museum in Cheyenne, law enforcement authorities close in on a Native American encampment on the edge of North Dakota’s Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
The occupiers, which included Native Americans, ministers and veterans, call themselves “water protectors” for their efforts in protecting the reservation’s water supply from pollution threatened by the Dakota Access Pipeline. The pipeline company has a slightly different view. So does the Trump administration.
On this snowy February day, the water protectors, threatened with expulsion, set fire to the huts and tents of their encampment. This makes for eerie images on the evening news.
Where have we seen this before?
Casper artist Wimmer created 18 collages (all 9-by-6 inches) for his exhibit, “Special Topics,” during a 2014 residency at Wyoming’s Ucross Foundation. Images and text came from issues of Harper’s Encyclopedia of United States History from 485 A.D.-1905.
Indian reservations and Indian schools were created in response to the so-called “Indian problem,” as it is referred to in the 1905 encyclopedia. Thus we have the titles of two of Wimmer’s works: “The Indian Problem, 1” and “The Indian Problem, 2.” Indians/Native Americans figure in a half-dozen of the exhibit’s works.In “The Indian Problem, 1,” a Native American is about to be executed by a European explorer. To the right, another Native American stands on a chair supported by a rickety framework of four arrowheads. The Native on the chair gestures down to the violent scene below as if saying, “See what we had to put up with? No wonder our foundation is so shaky.”
In “Indian Problem, 2,” a group of educated whites inspect “a group of educated Indians” while the Greek god Hermes flies overhead with a lightbulb balanced on his fingertip. He bears the caduceus, the ancient symbol for commerce, one of the tenets of manifest destiny.
As this observer ponders the subtext in Wimmer’s collages, I wander over to the adjacent Native American exhibits on the second floor of the State Museum. This wonderful new museum section (it debuted last year) provides some facts to chew on. Humans have occupied Wyoming for 12,000-14,000 years, give or take a few decades. They captured and butchered large mammals on sites now occupied by ranches and towns and tourist stops.
So, since native peoples occupied the region thousands of years before Europeans arrived, one of the questions Wimmer asks is this: “Just what is the history that predates The Indian Problem?” And another one posed in a panel entitled “Manifest Destiny:” “Just who created this problem in the first place?”
This question extends to the rest of Wimmer’s images. The “Western Company” panel may be the most literal of the bunch. An iron horse flying a huge U.S. flag is poised to run over a strolling Native American whose back is turned to his own destruction. A dull, copper-colored moon perches in the upper-right corner. It could be the last full moon of the Native American civilization. Or maybe it’s the blood-red moon of American conquest?
Wimmer’s wise (might even say wise-ass) collages help us look at key dates in this complicated history in a new light. The century-old encyclopedia illustrations have their own history. It was a time when “pirates” were lovable swashbucklers; Andrew Jackson’s “war with Mexico” was another noble cause; and the KKK was seen as a group of ex-Confederates protecting the flower of southern womanhood, represented by the prim woman seated in the collage.
Indians were “noble savages,” as long as they were safely ensconced on a reservation (“The Indian Problem, 2”). European explorers were seen as a civilizing influence on these roaming bands of primitives.
In the “Era of Permanent Discovery,” a family of 18th-century settlers beholds a stereotypical “caveman” carrying a club. The white man looks out across a world that needs taming and, by Jiminy, he is up to the task. “Permanent Discovery” spells doom for native people all over the world.
It’s really only 112 years since Harper’s published its 1905 encyclopedia. But in Wimmer’s hands, it sometimes seems like 112 centuries. His pointed and sometimes playful juxtapositions are both “special topics” and “special subjects.” Planets and moons sneak in from the corners of collages. Borders are randomly delineated in pen and cross-hatched patterns erupt in the middle of the frame. Most are in black-and-white with touches of color applied by hand.
The full effect is akin to viewing an expert’s historical presentation, something that in 2017 could, in the wrong hands, be presented as a PowerPoint presentation. Wimmer’s collages provide the artist’s last word on each topic. And the last word is … not what your jingoistic American of 1905 might have expected or even understood. Not exactly what your jingoistic American of 2017 might understand – or want to.
This last word on “Special Topics” may just be the beginning of another, more complicated, conversation.
“Special Topics” will be on display through April 2017 at the Wyoming State Museum. Visitors can buy an exhibit catalog with a $13 donation. It includes reproductions of all of the work featured in the exhibit, as well as an introduction by Casper art critic Dr. Bruce Richardson and an afterword and resume by the artist. You can view the images online.
Michael Shay is a Cheyenne writer who retired as communications specialist for the Wyoming Arts Council in January 2016. He blogs at hummingbirdminds.com — Ed.