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Alienation and Native Culture in John Feodorov’s Art

Brian Daffron
4/15/11

Forget the Information Age—ours is the Age of Alienation. At least that's how multimedia artist John Feodorov, Navajo, feels. “Alienation from the spiritual, from the land—I think is a lot of what we see happening around the world is very symptomatic of that,” said Feodorov. "I think it’s at the core of so many problems, whether it’s environmental issues or how we think of people from other cultures. The thing is I don’t have any answers, either. I’m not trying to come off as some sort of sage. I think it needs to be brought to the surface. Hopefully that will get people thinking past my little show and thinking of potential ways to resolving this within themselves and within their communities.”

"Emergence <a href=#3" by John Feodorov. Acrylic and charcoal on unstretched canvas, 70" x 70 ", 2010" width="270" height="272" />

Feodorov is not bound by any one medium or sense of convention. Instead, he is just as likely to incorporate video or music as part of an artistic installation as he would be to use a two-dimensional canvas. For Feodorov, an installation “isn’t just an object,” he said. “It’s the space as well. Video is a great way of using the exhibition space to engage the viewer.”

It is a refusal to be bound by convention or subject matter that has earned Feodorov recognition over the years, including being a part of the 2001 PBS series Art:21, Art for the 21st Century and its companion book published by Harry N. Abrams. Now an assistant professor of art at Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., Feodorov was recently granted $7,370 through the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation as part of its 2010 Artistic Innovation—“Through the Soul of an Artist” award. With this money, Feodorov bought a new Macintosh and software to continue his art, and traveled to an opening of his one-man show, “Emergence,” at the Museum of Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe, N.M. on the Institute of American Indian Arts campus.

Click here to watch the "Spirituality" episode of the PBS series Art:21 featuring John Feodorov

A major theme of Feodorov's work is reconnection to Native culture. Feodorov grew up in Southern California, where he was raised by his Navajo mother and had no connection with his father. His visits to the Navajo Reservation through his youth helped maintain family connections.

“Everything that I was exposed to was Navajo culture,” said Feodorov. “The thing is that it was a Christianized Navajo culture. In many ways, I think it was first generation assimilated culture. My mother definitely encouraged me to look into many different aspects of our heritage, but when it got to spirituality, that was a ‘no-no,’ because you’re a Christian. In my late teens and early 20’s is when I started breaking away from that Christian upbringing and looking at my own culture’s spirituality.”

Feodorov's art in many cases uses symbols from pop culture—music, television and other areas.

John Feodorov, "Emergence <a href=#4." Acrylic and collage on unstretched canvas, 72" x 72", 2010" width="270" height="256" />

“I use it so that there is an initial, superficial connection between the viewer and the work,” said Feodorov. “In a pop song, it’s like a hook. Hopefully that person will take that opportunity to connect more deeply.”

However, Feodorov said that he hasn’t actively pursued music since 2006 due to teaching responsibilities.

“I’m too old now to rock and roll,” said Feodorov. “Those leather pants just don’t look good anymore, if they ever did.”

In addition to his work in art and higher education, Feodorov has also served as arts commissioner for the City of Seattle and as an advocate for arts education for youth. One of the things that Feodorov said bothered him was how the importance of arts education has been downgraded in the public arena.

“As a society, we give lip service to [arts education]," he said. “But when kids graduate, it’s like ‘Knock off the nonsense, junior. It’s time to get a job.’ There’s no place for kids to continue to use that creativity. I think that’s really, really unfortunate.”

Feodorov’s primary advice to the next generation of Native artists is direct and candid, encouraging self-reflection and truth.

“Don’t just go for what’s going to sell at Indian Market,” said Feodorov. “Really try to explore much, much deeper your experience, but others’ experience as well. I don’t mean by appropriating. What is the humanity within your own experience? Be honest. Don’t let yourself off the hook. Be your own worst critic.”

To see more of Feodorov's art, visit johnfeodorov.com

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