Deerhide and Polyester: Natalie Ball Crafts Monuments to Indigenous Resistance

View of Natalie Ball's installation Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Snake, 2019, at Seattle Art Museum, Photo Lauren Farris.


The two large-scale sculptures that comprise Natalie Ball’s exhibition “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Snake,” on view at the Seattle Art Museum through November 17, employ a dense, associative mix of materials: fabric, snakeskin, leather, pine, acrylic, porcupine hair, deer rawhide, beads, crystals, and bullet shells. Tapping into the visual cultures and media of her African-American, Klamath, and Modoc ancestry, as well as those of contemporary American sports and fashion, Ball uses these rich material interactions to complicate the audience’s expectations about ethnography and identity.

The substrate for the wall-hung sculpture Re-run (2019) is a bright blue and yellow star quilt, approximately ten feet high by ten feet wide, held taut by two rough pine poles in a construction that recalls a scroll. A commanding figure appliqued to the quilt’s center is formed from two halves of a sports jersey joined along the bottom hem, with rattlesnake-skin arms protruding from the sleeves. In the upper right corner, detached from this body, a chalk white face laughs or leers, a red lightning bolt thrusting from its open mouth like a snake’s tongue. The upper half of the face is covered by old-fashioned letterman’s patches spelling out the word RAN, while similar patches spell out RUN upside-down on the lower half of the jersey. If you stand close enough to make the museum guards nervous, some key details become visible: A tiny logo on the jersey’s upper right sleeve reveals that its brand is Champion. Another face, partially concealed, peeks out from the lower jersey’s neckline, with plush chenille stitches used to depict the face and bone choker of an Indigenous person. Embroidered diagonally onto the N patch in RUN is the phrase “For. Lang.”—foreign language.

The components of Re-run feel like clues pointing to a distant, layered narrative, as though the artist were recounting a dream as it recedes from memory. The work’s symbolism circles around athleticism, running, and the body; language, speech, and tongues; achievement. But whose body, which language, and what victory? Lightning bolts represent power and speed. In the United States, letterman patches are given for athletic prowess. In many Native American cultures, a star quilt is a ceremonial item symbolizing great honor. Collectively, these elements suggest laurels for the winner of a race, though the nature of the contest remains a mystery. Re-run may be a reminder of individual toil and success, or a more general reference to the heritage of Native American footraces. Perhaps it’s a memorial to the forced marches of Native American “resettlement,” or intended to recognize the resilience of Indigenous children involuntarily conscripted into Indian boarding schools, where they were forbidden to speak their native languages. Maybe it honors the struggles currently faced by all nonwhite populations in the US. It could be all or none of these, and the Re- of the title invites us to consider again.

Indeed, in a maneuver that recalls Charles Willson Peale’s 1822 self-portrait The Artist in His Museum—in which the artist, the founder of one of the earliest museums in the United States, depicts himself lifting a curtain to display its collection to the viewer—the snakeskin arm of Ball’s figure pulls back the left side of the quilt as if to reveal some greater truth. Yet all it unveils is the blank wall of the gallery, playfully demonstrating its own misgivings in regard to the purported neutrality of white-cube spaces, engaging the white wall as a historical signifier of “progress” and exclusion.

Ball’s adroit material strategies are equally evident in the exhibition’s second work, You Mist Again (Rattle), 2019, which leans uncomfortably into a corner across the gallery. Two pine branches form a lopsided X, cross-tied precariously by a single piece of white nylon rope. The same length of rope travels upward to secure the rattle’s bulb, made of brightly colored, zigzag patterned fabric wrapped around the top of one pole. A partly affixed thunderbolt of cotton and snakeskin terminates in an upside-down beaded rose. High up, almost hidden from the viewer, is a commercially produced embroidered patch depicting a stereotypical “Indian Brave” face commonly (and offensively) used for sports mascots, which is itself partly concealed by an appliqued blue star. Two more letterman patches spell out M I—a phonetic spelling of “me?”—and tufts of porcupine hair erupt from the top.

The ebullient energy of the rattle is dampened by the shorter crosspiece below. Three of the nubs along this branch are covered with spent rifle casings, while the lower end is stuck evocatively into a child’s pink high-top sneaker. The single shoe, with its dingy silver-starred laces and worn-away sparkles, hints at loneliness and abandonment. Yet its top eyelets are laced with braided hair that holds a six-inch piece of roughly trimmed rawhide to the back of the shoe, a gesture that seems ceremonial and protective.

Dualities abound in both works: precise quilt piecing contrasts with amateurish hand stitches, homespun elements clash with commercially produced kitsch, and synthetics are juxtaposed with natural materials. Ball’s creations are freighted with symbolic messages, composed in a language that conjures both ancestral tradition and contemporary identity. These dynamic oppositions even manifest in the pine poles that physically hold the sculptures in tension. The works’ literal and implied tautness feels especially resonant given that this exhibition is in a gallery adjacent to others that contain modernist paintings and Indigenous artifacts. In their color, line, and energy, Ball’s sculptures share as much formally with Marsden Hartley’s Painting Number 49, Berlin (1914–15)—astutely placed within view of Ball’s work through a wide doorway—as they do with the tactility and zig-zag designs woven into the early twentieth-century coiled baskets that are part of the museum’s Coast Salish collection.

Ball’s exhibition is situated within a political and institutional dynamic that is slowly shifting: Museums are beginning to consider their own histories of theft, segregation, and representation. Many provide territorial acknowledgments on their websites, an important yet triflingly initiatory recognition of violation. (Tiny print on SAM’s Visit page reads: “The Seattle Art Museum acknowledges that we are located on the ancestral land of the Coast Salish people.”) The loose, nervy quality of Ball’s sculptures is heightened by their foundation in contemporary confrontations with histories that are at once personal and systemic.