Comic art carries on storytelling traditions

“Tewa Tales of Suspense: Behold ... Po'Pay!” 2008 Polychrome clay tile. Po'Pay is one of the named leaders of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.

When contemplating the rich history of Native-American visual art and storytelling, one probably doesn't picture comic art. Yet many contemporary native artists are continuing ancient storytelling traditions through comic strips, comic books and comic-inspired art and illustration.

This summer, the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center is presenting "Comic Art Indigene," an exhibition organized by the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture/Laboratory of Sante Fe, New Mexico. Shown in New England for the first time, the exhibit represents works by nearly 20 artists, and examines the influence of comic strips and comic books-also known as sequential art-as a medium for Native artists to articulate their views on politics, identity and culture.

Tony Chavarria, the exhibition's curator and curator of the Museum of Indian Arts, says it makes sense that contemporary Native-American artists would be creating comic-inspired art.

"When one looks at sequential art in the broader category of narrative art," he says, "artists, infused in pop culture-movies, TV or growing up exposed to comics, cartoons, even anime for younger artists-pull in these influences that are easily transferable to their own indigenous roots."

Stephen Cook, curator of the Pequot Museum says, "Once we saw the exhibit was being traveled, myself and other people on the staff were pretty excited about it. As kids, anyway, there was a lot of misinformation about people's ideas of Native Americans and comic books and people having this idea of Tonto and the Lone Ranger-or in the '70s, 'Amazing Stories' and 'Strange Tales' always had something in there about a medicine man or other [Native-American stereotype].

"This exhibit blows all that out of the water," Cook adds, "and represents both contemporary and historic artists working in this genre?and looks at fairly complex ideas."

The exhibit includes photographs of rock art, ledger art and ceramics, connecting the dots between historic Native-American narrative art and present day comic and illustrative art.

An example in the show of rock art, known as a petroglyph (rock engraving), titled "All American Man" dates back to the 1300s. It depicts a Pueblo Indian warrior carrying a shield, and Chavarria notes that the red, white and blue colors-made with earth pigments and clay-are still vibrant hundreds of years later.

Cook points out that petroglyphs were a prevalent form of Native art throughout New England and the Northeast as well the Southeast.

Ledger art, Chavarria explains, is a type of artwork that was first produced at the end of the Nomadic period of the Plains tribes-in the 1880s and 1890s-at some of the first reservations around military forts.

"They would use ledger books to create picture stories of their lives-trickster tales with the Coyote figure-a mythological figure that causes mischief," Chavarria says.


Chavarria is pleased that the Pequot Museum has supplemented the exhibit to include work by artists from southeastern Connecticut (in the atrium outside the gallery).

"It's always beneficial to get local communities and artists involved in programming," he says. "It helps expand the scope of the exhibit and people's exposure to these artists working in these new venues."

Cook says the only thing the museum wanted to add was the work of East Coast Native-American artists talented in this field.

"Art, storytelling and humor have always been interrelated and a very strong tradition among all Native-American people," he says.

Cook attributes Chris Frey of Narragansett, a graphic artist and cartoonist and Pequot Museum staff member with bringing together the other regional artists. These include Mashantucket Pequot artist and filmmaker Ariel Merrill, who will show an animated short she produced; and Narragansett muralist, illustrator and tattoo artist Ty'esha Reels, who created a triptych mural in conjunction with the exhibit, on site in the Mashantucket Gallery.

Also contributing to the exhibit is Andrea Grant of New York-a Coast Salish/Laplander Inuit. Grant is a writer, multimedia artist and founder of Copious Amounts of Press. Her latest project, "MINX," is a graphic novel series merging Native-American mythology with modern superhero fantasy.


Chavarria has found that this show appeals to all ages.

"It (brings) the older men, who were in high school or college in the mid-1960s, back to that time when Marvel comics got huge, (during) the Silver Age of Comics," he says.

At the other end of the spectrum, he says, it engages "the younger audience, into geek culture, influenced by anime, manga, comics and the video games they inspire.

"I think it appeals to people interested in older and more contemporary Indian art, and also people just interested in comic art, who didn't realize this art existed or was being done," he adds.

Chavarria says it's great when "people go to a museum and come away saying, 'I wasn't expecting that' -in a positive way-'it was something I really ended up enjoying and getting a lot out of.'"

Related programming

Comic Art Fan Day: Sat., July 21, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

East Coast Native-American cartoonists, animators, comic-styled artists and illustrators will meet and talk with kids and adults while displaying their works. Attendees are invited to create their own comic books-to be displayed for the duration of the exhibit-and meet multi-media artist Andrea Grant, creator of the new graphic novel series MINX. Free with museum admission and free to museum members.

Cartooning 101 - Native Style: Sat., Aug. 18, 10 a.m. - noon

Join the museum's artist and senior graphic designer, Chris M. Fry as he demonstrates the technique of cartooning. Kids age 9 to 12 years old can create their own cartoon characters during the drawing class. Supplies are included with $10 fee. Register by Aug. 17; limited to 15 participants.

“Protector of Innocence, 2007.”
“Protector of Innocence, 2007.”


What: Comic Art Indigene

Where: Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center, 110 Pequot Trail, Mashantucket

When: Through Sept. 15

Info: Call 800-411-9671 or visit


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