Artist Inspired by Saga of Geronimo’s Bones
As the art world gathered in New York City for the prestigious Armory Show, uninvited guests—many living, and one dead but perhaps not at peace—prepared to crash the party.
British-born artist Paul Seftel and an army of henchmen hit the streets distributing Post Nobilis, a mock newspaper addressing the legend that grave robbers from Yale’s Skull & Bones Society stole Geronimo’s skull from Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in 1918. According to some accounts, one of the participants was Prescott Bush, father and grandfather to two U.S. Presidents. The front of Post Nobilis contains an account of the story, as well as “The Origins of the Apache,” taken from Geronimo’s autobiography; the back features an image of an American Indian postage stamp with a skull superimposed.
Seftel’s fascination with stamps stems from his discovery of the two-cent “Navajo Jewelry” stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service in 2004. “I found the repeating pattern beautiful and thought it ironic that the federal value of Native crafts was only two cents,” he said. "So I bought 4,000 of them and pasted them onto a 72" x 48" canvas, and painted the US flag over them with iron and copper pigments, oxidizing them to rust patina oranges and blues. It's a remnant of contemporary US culture—and, as I like to say, simply my two cents. At that time, the second Iraq war was beginning, and I wanted to create an artifact stating how the US had painted itself over other cultures. I bought 16,000 of these 'Navajo Jewelry' stamps and incorporated them into numerous pieces. In a piece called Night Swimming, I laid out 4,000 on my canvas and as one became removed from the sheet I would place it upside down, the repetitive V-V-V-V pattern of the jewelry becoming a diamond and creating a warp in what was becoming like a blanket weaving of Navajo jewelry stamps."
For the back side of Post Nobilis (see detail above), Seftel started with a 14-cent "American Indian" stamp from 1923. He recreated the stamp's image with thousands of smaller versions, then used many tiny images of Geronimo's face (from the famous portrait by Ben Wittick) to create a skull. "It struck me that that nameless chief on the 14-cent stamp ought to be someone," Seftel said. "There have been so many great and inspiring leaders within Native American history. And as Geronimo had so long been interred in federal captivity I thought it an interesting way to perhaps set that spirit free. So I created a piece with Geronimo emerging from the 14-cent stamp. To me, it's a small way of acknowledging one hero out of many, and canonizing this revolutionary spiritual leader."
He hopes that Post Nobilis will draw attention to the mystery of Geronimo’s bones (which, for the record, many experts consider to be a hoax) and the larger implications of past injustices.
“I am fascinated by how the act of revealing the past may aid in the necessary reparations of the present,” he said. A dual citizen of the United States and Britain, he is both enamored of the “new world” and uneasy with his homeland’s history as colonizers. “I have always found my greatest inspirations, spiritually and artistically in the Earth religions of the American Indians,” he said. “The imperialism that colonized this planet, beginning in Britain centuries ago, has shown little regard for the value of life. Our Western educational systems continue to proffer lies—lies repeated frequently enough to have become adopted truths. Greed-based politics and economics led to the desecration of the earth, and the obliteration of indigenous peoples' rights and ancient spiritual values. I've been inexplicably absorbed by the story of Geronimo for many years. Creating this piece, attempting to conjure the world through his eyes, has been a labor of love. I hope to perhaps adds another voice within our universal fight to uphold human sovereignty, truth and spiritual freedoms."
Post Nobilis is on view at Seftel’s website, PaulSeftel.com.