This article was updated on Oct. 16 to correct a caption error. “Genocide” was a performance written to bring awareness to the sterilizations of the women in I.C.E. custody, not to the #MMIW epidemic, as we originally reported.
Talking with Fawn Douglas is a little bit like finding out that the coolest girl in school is also nice, funny, and about 10 other things besides just being preternaturally talented. She’s the kind of person you have real hopes that you will become best friends with, but ultimately know that your eagerness will prevent that from happening. I am predictable to the core. Douglas, however, is not.
With no allegiance to any particular medium, the Southern Paiute artist makes work to protest some powerful acronyms (DAPL, I.C.E., USAF) and promote others (NoDAPL, MMIW, DNWR, ILM, BLM), all while getting an MFA at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and sitting on the boards of various environmental and Indigenous organizations. A list of recent projects includes murals, face masks, a butterfly dance, and a Paiute version of Twister. Her next project is as likely to involve paint and video as it is basket weaving, hazmat suits, and social media. (She is @NuwuArt across all platforms.)
Lately, Douglas has been making waves outside of Vegas, showing work at both The Nevada Museum of Art and The Holland Project in Reno—mixing traditional techniques and contemporary sensibilities to say something new about Native identity, or at least her own. This often involves elbowing non-Native audiences into a more playful position than, say, the posture of reverence I sometimes default to when encountering Indigenous work I don’t immediately understand.
Douglas knows there will be people like me and people who know more, but her work speaks to everyone all the same. Last week, we spoke directly, first on Zoom and then—when Zoom failed—over the phone in a conversation that left me with a bit of a dropped jaw and a list of artists and campaigns to look up. Sometimes reverence makes perfect sense.
Hi Fawn! How is your pandemic going? Are you glad to be back in the studio?
Yes, I am here mostly every single day. I feel like it slowed down my art a little bit over the summer, but things started to pick up again once I got back into the studios at Grant Hall. It’s definitely a space that’s more conducive to learning.
Are you meeting with your MFA community again now that things are opening back up? Has it been hard to connect distantly?
We meet every Friday from one to four, and, other than that, I don’t see them too much. That’s OK. We’re all at different levels of comfortability about how we feel about being around other people. I’ve really accepted Zoom and just being on the screen as my connection and enjoying it for what it is, because months ago—when COVID was starting in the springtime—I was like, “I hate these meetings, this sucks.” You just complain, complain. But after a while, it’s really just appreciating this for what it is.
I wanted to ask you about your work from back in the spring. I think it was the beginning of the pandemic and you had multiple pieces up on the UNLV Open Studios website, but one that really stood out to me was “Laptop Dances” where you wrote out a COVID-inspired burlesque act on a Word document, complete with hazmat suit, mask, and sanitizer. I just thought it was so fun and so sexy and unsettling. What was your inspiration behind that piece?
Well, one of my fellow colleagues, Aaron Cowan—who’s also in the MFA program—when I talked to him about this project, he automatically said, “laptop dances,” like “lap dances,” and I was like, “Oh my gosh, I have to steal that, it’s so witty.” He’s really funny.
But the inspiration behind it was thinking about what’s changing for sex workers. I heard on NPR that the strip clubs had closed down everywhere and women aren’t able to make the money that they used to, so they’re finding new and innovative ways to interact—either phone sex lines or photo or video. What is it like to be in the pandemic and to have an interaction with another person in such a personal way? I was really surprised to hear that the phone sex workers were getting different types of requests to do certain things. “Wear hazmat suit.” “Keep it on!” “Wash your hands.”
You know, it sounded silly to me, but when I was going through it, constructing this act of writing it down, I thought, “Well, it actually doesn’t sound so silly.” There’s always that thing about the tension before you connect with the person. There’s mystery there that is really interesting. So this starts to make sense and, in fact, I ordered the hazmat suit. But because it was coming from China, it took me months to get it.
Did you ever perform the piece?
Not yet, but I will. Yes, I’m definitely planning to before the end of the season for sure. I’ll need to record it and figure out how to do that.
Are you involved in burlesque? Or were you before “Laptop Dances?”
I used to be. I used to be a really strong supporter—and still am—of the Las Vegas burlesque community. And for several years, I was a volunteer for the Burlesque Hall of Fame Museum [in Las Vegas].
I’m not very familiar with burlesque, but I know it comes from a tradition of reclaiming sexuality.
Absolutely, it’s definitely a reclaiming of sexuality and power because the person performing the act is the person who has control over the viewer. They’re only able to see as much as you want to show them. Being a past burlesque performer—I used to run my own shows like 10 years ago—that was a part of my early performance career that was super steeped in feminism. It was just about women really applauding each other and themselves, feeling comfortable within their own skin, within their own acts and who they are. A lot of body positivity. It was a really fun time.
Speaking of dancing, you have a piece at the NMA called “We Don’t Dance For Money.” It looks like an item of regalia, a kind of shawl with ribbons and bells that hang off of a banner made up of dance competition numbers, which you include as an example of “Pow Wow culture and the beauty and contradictions within it,” according to your wall text. Can you talk about these “contradictions”?
To me, the powwow circle is a place of prayer. That circle is sacred. And so to go into it when you’re doing these different styles of dance—whether it’s jingle dance (which is a prayer dance), or fancy shawl dance (which is this butterfly dance of emergence) or traditional dance—all of those are very spiritual. And to step into the circle and to do these dances is to dance for people who can’t dance. We dance for the elderly, for the sick, for those that need prayers, those that are going through addiction, for strength. That is the feeling of going into that circle. And so with the powwow, it’s all the beautiful things that it is—but for a lot of powwow, there is also competition. So there’s a prize for first place, second place, third place in each category, dance style, age group. And when people are going out there, sometimes it gets a little competitive. There are some people who can be really snarky with each other or look down on somebody because their dresses aren’t that shiny, or the newest, or have the tightest beadwork.
And so for me and my daughter, we don’t dance for money. In fact, we break up the weekend. So, when we do go, we go there in prayer. We’ll get out there on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, but we intentionally don’t dance Friday or Sunday. Maybe Sunday … if we feel like it. You know, it’s more about not going to join the competition portion of it. We’ll just do it because we want to dance.
Let’s talk about your work at The Holland Project. You have a canvas piece titled “Blood Quantum,” which loosely resembles a flag and references this measure of Native identity that was imposed from the outside. How would you describe blood quantum for people who are not familiar with it?
I guess I would compare it to a pedigree. I hate to say that because “pedigree” usually connotes something that is animal—but for blood quantum, we have a certain degree that we are. It’s like proof of how much Indian a person is. So, for Las Vegas Paiute Tribe, I’m a member there and I’m thirteen-thirty-seconds. And to be a member, you have to be one-quarter Southern Paiute or more. So I’m right on that third line, which means that my daughter doesn’t make it for membership. There are people who have darker skin or have more blood quantum—as opposed to somebody who has lighter skin or who is not enrolled—and it’s been a place of division. Not only within my tribe, my family, or members, but it’s also been the norm across the nation where people have gotten into a lot of fights over how much Indian they are. It’s really a governmental colonial construct for us to think that we’re more or less Native than somebody else. I really hate that kind of challenge on identity, because—in the past, and even today—it’s almost like you feel you’re not enough for the tribe or for yourself and it’s a really sad place to be.
So, with that piece with the American flag, I had this canvas that I had painted black and white, earth tone acrylics, and with some red clay. I constructed the pieces, then ripped them apart into different strips, and I sewed it back together—just to show that even though we’re different, we’re all from the same background, from the same tribe, all from the same lands that we identify with. We’re cut from the same cloth. So if this one person has more pigment or less pigment, it doesn’t matter because we’re all tied together.
You have another piece at Holland titled “Reduced” that also touches on the idea of diminished identity. For the piece, you made a cheap-looking headdress in the colors of Western High School—a school in Las Vegas whose mascot is the “Warriors.” The text on the piece references stereotypes, especially those around sexualizing native women—“Pocahotties” you say in your statement. Can you talk about how this piece draws attention to the MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women) campaign and how it interrogates the Native symbols we use?
Well, it interrogates the viewer. When that piece was hanging at our show, “Commodified” last year, there were many people who came in to see it. And some people would look at the words [“Pocahontas Vibes,” “Sexy & Savage Dior”] and then they flip their heads to kind of see the smaller text that runs down the center of it [“Native American women experience violence in their lifetime #MMIW”]. But then there’s others who, well … I saw a couple of people that took a selfie with it and acted like the headdress was behind their head so it looked like they were wearing it in a certain way. They might like it aesthetically—even though I intentionally tried to make it look ugly—but there’s that moment where the viewer has had their fun with it, and then they start to read it, look at it, and it’s like, “Oh, oh, yeah. So this is happening—there’s all these missing and murdered Indigenous women.”
[Regarding the “Warrior” cultural appropriation references] A couple of years ago, we went to Western High School and had a meeting with the principal and faculty and staff. It’s seven in the morning, kind of before classes are starting, and we met with them in their library to talk to them about cultural appropriation issues. Some of them were eager to listen to us and hear us. And then there were a handful of them—like one woman, a sports coach who was a person of color, which is I guess is kind of intriguing … she said, “This makes them proud. They’re proud to be Warriors.” I continued on with the presentation and then I was like, “You know, we’re in this place of learning, this place of education, and I noticed that there are murals all around us in this library that we’re sitting in. There’s a mural of this person in a headdress, a tomahawk.” You know, silly symbols. And I asked the entire room of educators, “Can anybody here tell me what tribe we’re honoring with these murals? Can you please tell me the names of tribes that are represented here in your artwork?” Crickets. Not a single person could say anything. A couple of people I saw lean towards each other and shrug their shoulders. They reached out for input, but it became a big fight. Mountains of crowds, four-year alumni—mostly Euro-American people—fought back against this tiny position, basically the voices of the few, and I realized, “Wow, they want the symbols of us, but they don’t want any part of our struggle, or even to hear what we have to say about it.”
That kind of extends to the work you’ve been doing to educate people about mascots like Hey Reb! [at UNLV] and Beauregard, the Confederate wolf, who is painted onto the floor of The Barrick.
Not anymore! They removed [Beauregard] a few weeks ago.
Oh wow! Nice. I didn’t know that. So, why do you think it’s important to call out institutions for things like mascots when people might say, “Oh, it’s just as a silly symbol,” or “It’s been here forever.”
Well, I think because this is an institution of higher learning and in a place of learning, people need to be taught the true history and to confront things. Especially if there’s racism within a school. You know, we have to change. And I feel like none of this would have changed if the murder of George Floyd didn’t happen. I think that it opened a lot of eyes, hearts, and minds to racism everywhere, and people aren’t putting up with it anymore. Honestly, I don’t think any of those symbols would be removed otherwise. I just thought they would always kind of be there.
But then things started to progress and I got a message from a friend that the “Hey Reb!” statue was being removed and I was like, “Wait … what?” I had to go there the next day to see that it was actually gone. There was some pushback against that, of course—people who are “proud Rebels.” But they also have to confront their own racism and we need to talk about it. People genuinely don’t understand or get it why it’s inappropriate, what a frontiersman is—that it’s an Indian killer, that it’s a symbol of white supremacy because it’s been portrayed as a fun-loving, cute caricature. But you can’t unlearn the truth.
I think you’re right about George Floyd being a turning point. It’s kind of thrown everything into relief so we can really see what entrenched colonizing structures we’re living with. It also feels like a moment of opportunity. I don’t know if this seems ignorant—or if I’m alone in feeling this way as a white person—but it has kind of been my first instinct to just want to completely remove myself from these places and say, “Here, you take the baton now. Take everything.” I’m not sure if that’s a bad instinct, but I can’t help but feel like marginalized communities should hold more space than just, you know, the gallery walls in the art world.
Yeah, you know, I agree. We should hold more space. But I think I disagree on the passing of the baton. Do you mean, like, you don’t want to deal with the racism or confronting other racists?
No, I guess the way I’m thinking of it is just that the positions of leadership are still pretty white across the board. I think it’s like the difference between power and control. There’s inherent power already present in these communities, but the control isn’t necessarily there, for a variety of reasons. I think handing the baton is the idea of control going to the people whose work occupies the buildings. I don’t know, what do you see as progress in this moment?
For people of color to feel their strength and take that power. To demand that seat at the table, to take that seat at the table and to say, “Hey, we are here. And you know … we’re not going anywhere.”
What’s next for you, artwise?
There’s the exhibit at the Sahara West Library called Unshelved. It’s a presentation from the Master of Fine Art students. [My piece is] “Seeds.” It’s a really large tapestry painting of the saguaro cacti that is being knocked down. It’s inspired by the New York Times article on the destruction of the saguaro cacti for the building of the border wall … and there’s this picture that they took of the saguaro being knocked down, and it’s all leaning on itself. I painted that with the sunrise—or sunset—behind it, and with green fringe hanging down from it to represent the roots as a people. It looks very bright, and vivid, and colorful, and it is aesthetically beautiful, but it’s meant to question as well. “Why are these cacti knocked down?” “What is the purpose of this?” “Why does it happen?” It also shows the roots of the Tohono O’odham people—or even the Kumeyaay—any tribe this many along the border, that go across the border (their relatives are on both sides) because, our people, Indigenous people never had borders. There’s a big division there because of this wall. Family members are being disconnected from other family members. It’s messing up the environment, the ecosystem. There’s so many things that are wrong with the construction of the border wall. But also just to show that there’s still going to be resilience. The roots of the people go deeper. That the people are seeds. That their language is dropping seeds. That their culture is still deep and that these things will still be passed on. So, it’s meant to kind of show, like, wow, this is really fucked up, but at the same time the people will still overcome.
Fawn Douglas has work in three group exhibitions, A Claiming Which Cannot Be Tamed at The Holland Project in Reno through Oct. 23, Unshelved at the Sahara West Public Library in Las Vegas, and In The Flow at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno through Jan. 10, 2021. She’s also a featured author in the Las Vegas Writes’ virtual book tour on Oct. 22. To see more of the artist’s work, go to www.fawnart.org or check out her Instagram for recent updates.