Utah gallery cuts ties with Western artist over use of Indigenous icons

Modern West Fine Art stops representing Billy Schenck, ‘Warhol of the West,’ after complaints of cultural appropriation.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) Modern West Fine Art, at 421 S. 700 West, in downtown Salt Lake City. The gallery has cut ties with a New Mexico-based artists, after complaints that his work was insensitive to Indigenous communities.

A prominent Salt Lake City art gallery has cut ties with a famous Western painter, after complaints from Indigenous activists that the painter’s work often appropriated and abused Native American iconography.

The activists, though, are questioning why the gallery didn’t act sooner — and only after hearing criticism from them that artists represented by the gallery took action.

To Denae Shanidiin and Kalama Ku’ikahi Tong, some of the art posted on the website of Salt Lake City’s Modern West Fine Art, 412 S. 700 West, was triggering and insensitive to Indigenous people.

One of the works, with the title “Oh My God,” depicts a white woman and an Indigenous woman standing side by side, while military planes drop bombs over Monument Valley. In the all-caps speech bubble, the white woman asks the Indigenous woman, “OH MY GOD!! WAS THAT YOUR VILLAGE?” The characters look to be taken not from reality so much as from an old Hollywood movie, with stereotyped costumes.

Another work showed a naked Indigenous woman, wearing a headdress, in a canoe. Still another depicted spiritual deities, such as the Ahola Kachina, that Shanidiin and Tong considered to be cultural appropriation and abuse.

The works in question were created by Billy Schenck, a pop artist who was called “the Warhol of the West” by the Southern Utah Museum of Art, which mounted an exhibition of his and Andy Warhol’s Western-themed work earlier this year. According to Castle Fine Art, Schenck’s art fuses “Navajo culture, modern-day cowgirls and tongue-in-cheek humor.”

Shanidiin, a Salt Lake City artist who is Diné and Korean, and Tong, who comes from the island of Hawaii, argue that Schenck’s work is dehumanizing, sexually abusive, stereotypical and cultural appropriation — making a profit from Indigenous cultures of the southwest, particularly the Diné, or Navajo, culture.

The sexual aspects of Schenck’s work, Shanidiin said, are particularly alarming, given recent attention paid to the plight of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIW). Shanidiin and Tong organized events to mark MMIW Day, May 5, in Salt Lake City, raising awareness that Utah is one of the top 10 states in the nation for Indigenous women and girls going missing or being killed — with rates higher than those for other racial groups.

Modern West represents various Indigenous artists, including Diné artists Shonto Begay — whose work is featured in an online exhibition on the gallery’s website through May 31 — as well as Sheldon Harvey and Patrick Dean Hubbell, who are from the Navajo Nation.

“Every Indigenous artist in that [gallery] is a victim of this colonization and genocide” represented in Schenck’s work, Shanidiin said. “They’re inherently at harm by being in this gallery, juxtaposing their sacred work and their livelihood next to Billy Schenck’s.”

Diane Stewart, owner of Modern West and a fixture in Salt Lake City’s arts community, confirmed that the gallery has ended ties with Schenck.

In an email statement to The Salt Lake Tribune, Stewart said that the gallery does not support the exploitation or victimization of Indigenous people.

An April 29 post on the gallery’s website, signed by Stewart and gallery director Shalee Cooper, acknowledged that “the lack of curation with Billy’s last [online] show was a huge mistake on our part. Certainly the correct curation would have provided us with the insight needed to see how the work does not align with our community standards, nor the standards of the gallery.”

The post said the gallery will “pause our representation of Billy Schenck. We are taking this break with all his work to understand the depth and breadth of the effect his imagery has with our community.”

In her statement to The Tribune, Stewart said, “we hope the discussions around this experience will enlighten and bring more awareness to needed changes for a more sensitive and fair treatment of Indigenous populations. Those are very big and important issues that cannot be resolved by the gallery, or even the art world alone, but we hope to be able to do our part to rebuild trust with a new, more informed perspective.”

Schenck, who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, did not respond to The Tribune’s attempts to contact him. In a recent painting, Schenck depicted a woman, terrified of hands holding a rope behind her, and speaking into a phone, “Oh, Jesus! The woke police are here!”

In its April 29 post, the gallery solicited comments from other artists.

Laura Sharp Wilson, who identifies as white and had recently finished a residency at Modern West, said she thought about her involvement with the gallery — and about educating herself about cultural sensitivities in the art world.

“I’m having a big epiphany that white people need to do a lot more work and native people, BIPOC people should not have to be doing all the work,” Wilson told The Tribune. “It’s also made me realize that white people have been taught to be blind to this type of thing, and that’s why we are still talking about this.”

Sarah Hollenberg, who teaches art history at the University of Utah, said that part of her job is teaching students to “recognize and begin to untangle the ugly mess of stereotype, racism and misogyny built into their historical and contemporary visual culture.” She added that Modern West’s choice to represent Schenck “makes my job harder. It tells aspiring artists, art historians, educators and future leaders that as far as representation goes, it is OK to look no further than the same old colonial narratives.”

Before Modern West cut ties with Schenck, Shanidiin questioned the gallery’s rhetoric protecting the artist — and noted it took public comments from the Salt Lake City arts community to call out the content of Schenck’s work.

Stewart told The Tribune that she and Cooper solicited those comments from local artists, and acted thoughtfully but not slowly after the initial complaints from Shanidiin and another artist. They took two weeks to seek comments, she said, and another week to finalize their decision to cut ties with Schenck.

Shanidiin is herself an artist — one who opts not to be represented by a major gallery — and her inspiration comes, she said, from her people and the landscape. She contrasted that to Schenck’s work, which she called “threatening and in control of narratives on Indigenous land, body, identity and art.”

Correction • An earlier version of this story described Denae Shanidiin and Kalama Ku’ikahi Tong as walking through the gallery and being offended by specific works by artist Billy Schenck. Those works were never displayed in the gallery and only appeared online.

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