Brent Learned's Native Pop Mission

By Sandra Hale Schulman
- News From Indian Country -

Oklahoma City artist Brent Learned is on a mission. He wants to show Native art on the same plain as art from other genres and parts of the world.
He is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapho Tribes of Oklahoma, and wants people to know that “We’re still relevant, we want our voices to be heard.
 
 
One of the main projects he has been working on aside from an ambitious series of his own works, is an inclusive club he calls Native Pop.
Chief On Horse By Brent Learned
 
It took him 2 years to get a strong group of contemporary artists together to exhibit new work but once he did it was a big success. He pulled in Steven Paul Judd, Bunky Echo Hawk and other artists who mine a similar vein of using images from movies, ads and media then turn them around to reflect Natives.
 
In Brent’s art Smokey the Bear, a popular image used for decades to teach about fire prevention at parks (“Only YOU can prevent forest fires”) becomes an Arapho skinwalker, concealing an Indian under his furry hide.
 
“My tribe really does wear bear hides,” Brent says. “So this is an image that has real meaning for me. I don’t like when some artists just stick a feather on a pop culture image and think that makes it Native Pop art. I want to dig deeper than that. My father, who was a sculptor, stressed our history to me and said it needs to be passed down because so much was lost in the boarding school years. I only paint things relevant to my tribe.”
 
After its debut in July 2016, Native Pop was asked to show at Pop Gallery in Santa Fe in August 2016, followed by California’s American Indian and Indigenous Film Festival in Palm Springs in November 2016. It then moved to Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, South Dakota and to the Bishop Gallery in Brooklyn.
 
“Art always evolves. It’s like society itself, it’s always moving,” Learned says. “Native Pop is literally a whole new archetype of movement. Another thing I noticed is how there is very little nude art in Native historical paintings. It’s a tradition in every other genre but maybe this is related to how we have been historically treated as either the noble savage or just no identity at all.”  
Thomas Tank By Brent Learned
 
Brent’s impressive work resides in museums such as the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, The University of Kansas Art Museum in Lawrence, Kansas and the Cheyenne/Arapaho Museum in Clinton, Oklahoma.
 
“I draw, paint, and sculpt the Native American in a style that speaks volumes about my culture,” he says. “I use bright bold colors, textures, and brush strokes that bring life to the Plains Indian way of life in a contemporary impressionistic style. I want to impress on young painters that they should dig into their own history and don’t have to take from other tribes for imagery or inspiration. To me that’s disrespectful. Learn how to make art in school, get the basics and take slow steps. I want artists to earn their stripes and not take shortcuts.”
 
His work is painterly and bright, with a wild array of colors reminiscent of Fritz Shoulder. Some are straight classic imagery of wolves, buffalo and Native portraits, others are clever takes on comic book heroes or children’s book characters.
 
His political leanings are evident on his social media pages but he mainly allows his work to speak for him – a mixture of pride, heritage and some modern day fun.
 
Brent has been commissioned to paint the art for the poster in  the Native American Heritage Celebration in Oklahoma City and for Red Earth in Oklahoma.
 
 Newspapers such as The Oklahoman, Santa Fe Reporter, Indianapolis Hoosier, Anadarko News and the Lawrence Journal World have all covered his work and it has been featured in Native People Magazine, and National Indian Gaming Magazine. Brent currently resides in Oklahoma City, but has traveled as far as Russia to spread the word about Native art.
 

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