Published on January 20, 2014 by Amy
Bently Spang (born 1960) is a Northern Cheyenne multidisciplinary artist, writer, and curator. His work has been exhibited widely in the United States, Canada, Mexico, South America, and Europe.
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Spang was born on the Crow Indian Reservation in 1960 and grew up both on and off the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, living in places such as Sitka, Alaska and Portland, Oregon He graduated from Montana State University Billings and earned a Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He taught at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston from 2007 to 2009 as a full-time Visiting Faculty Member in Video.
Spang’s early work included mixed media sculptures, often made out of metal, and installations. His later work focused on incorporating digital technologies such as film and photography. Spang drew inspiration to work in mixed media from observing how his Cheyenne ancestors incorporated European materials into their artwork; he stated, “There was this fearlessness about mediums that we don’t really have today.” Spang considers his art autobiographical, addressing his cultural identity as a Cheyenne living in a modern society and bridging the gap between these two worlds. Spang often incorporated humor into his work to present such themes to his audience.
In his sculpture Pevah (meaning “good” in Cheyenne), Spang used stone and wood to signify the Cheyenne part of him, and he used aluminum to signify the contemporary world. In constructing the project, he explained, “The metal binds the stone, the wood binds them both. I am bound by my culture; we are still here after all.” Another one of Spang’s sculptures is inspired by the Cheyenne tradition of adorning the fringe of war shirts with the hairs from the warrior’s community. The fringe on Spang’s War Shirt #1 is likewise composed of the photographic negatives of people he knows to show that he draws his strength from the community.
Spang collaborated with techno DJ Bert Benally to create the Techno Pow Wow, a mix of rave dance culture with into a traditional pow wow. The inspiration for this piece came from the electronic music movement during the 1990s. Spang claimed that the energy and effortless dancing reminded him of the pow wows at the reservation. Spang performed as part of this piece as “The Blue Guy”, the tribal chief figure of the future. Through this installation’s mix of cultural music and dance, Spang hoped to showcase the similarities between Native American and modern culture. In his New American Relics: Redux 2 (2009), Spang satirized museums and anthropologists’ depiction of indigenous America as a “lost culture” using irony. He designed a futuristic museum exhibit for the “vit-heut” (meaning “white man” in Northern Cheyenne) with “artifacts” molded from the plastic encasings of ordinary objects.
In 2003, Spang won an Outstanding Alumni Award from MSU Billings for “Exceptional Contribution” and a Woodrow Wilson Foundation: Imagining America grant. The next year, he was awarded a Paul G. Allen Family Foundation Grant for his residency in conjunction with the Techno Powwow Project. Spang has also gained artist fellowships from the Creative Capital Foundation and the Joan Mitchell Foundation.