Murtaza Vali on Natalie Ball

Natalie Ball, an artist of Native American (both Modoc and Klamath) and African descent, is drawn to assemblage. She crafts raucous wall hangings and wily sculptures out of materials sourced in and around her home in Chiloquin, Oregon. Some of these items, such as beads, quilts, various textiles, animal hides, and bones, carry great ancestral significance. Others come from the realm of synthetic consumer kitsch, including cowboy paraphernalia, varsity letters, and images of sports mascots. All of these things present her lifeworld without necessarily explaining it. For Ball, the value of assemblage lies in its self-evident fabrication, which makes it useful for unpacking the social construction of race and identity. Her work’s unruly hybridity, marked by a processual quality that counters the precision and preciousness of traditional craft, challenges conventions for how “Native American” objects and identity are defined, from art-historical canons and popular stereotypes to the persistence of blood-quantum laws, which limit tribal membership based on genetics. Adopting the persona of Deer Woman for this small but sharp exhibition, Ball instead asserted Indigeneity as complex, mutable, performative, and above all self-determined, both culturally and politically.

Ball trained as a painter, and her motley, irregularly shaped compositions are simply pinned to the wall and pulled taut over rough-hewn wooden branches. Her works, featuring a riot of pattern, color, and texture, are embellished with ancient and culturally resonant symbols. While an eye-catching fuchsia lightning bolt fills the center of Sling Shot, 2022, the number 1864, written out with letterman patches—which Ball frequently uses to introduce text into her art—reappears in three different places. Referencing the year that a land treaty was signed between tribal elders and the US government, the artist inverted the 4 as a reminder that the promise of sovereignty remains unfulfilled. Sheriff’s Star, 2022, recasts the titular emblem of settler-colonial authority as a quilted star, an important cultural artifact for many Native American tribes. Its characteristic rhomboid units—a handful of vividly colored neon ones are mixed into a collaged area of clumsily stitched fabric segments and pieces of hide—radiate from the rounded top of a Billy Jack hat, which protrudes like a nipple from the wall. The hat is named for the mixed-race vigilante hero (played by a white actor) of the eponymous 1971 “Indiansploitation” film, which, while peddling stereotypes and sensationalism, nevertheless became a landmark for Native American representation, broadening the public visibility of the Red Power movement. Yet Ball completed only half of the star—her ambivalence in finishing it is perhaps an acknowledgment of the complexities in which these signifiers are mired.

The sculpture Deer Woman and the 100th Selfie, 2022, similarly takes apart another Wild West accoutrement, the cowboy boot. While the boot’s embroidered shaft encases the point where the diagonals of a Y-shaped piece of wood converge, what remains of it is shoved, toe end first, into the bottom of the shaft so that the insole faces out, like a gaping mouth. Thin strips of deer hide droop across this orifice, and colorful fabric is knotted around the work’s base to help stabilize it. The relatively simple construction suggests a slingshot or the skull of an antlered animal—both hunting tool and prey. In Klamath Land Back Fuckers, 2021, thin strands of synthetic braiding hair are threaded through the eyelets of a child’s pink Converse sneaker whose rubber sole faces outward. The shoe is placed atop a piece of found wood—charred black by the Bootleg Fire near Beatty, Oregon, which decimated the region during the summer of 2021—and wrapped in quilted fabric, turned inside out and roughly painted white in places. The conflagration threatened not just Klamath tribal lands but also their precious water sources, which were drawn on heavily to fight the blaze. On the floor below the sculpture sits a cardboard box emblazoned with the artist’s name, the sculpture’s title, and its date. As if a homemade protest sign had been repurposed unceremoniously as a shipping container for the work, the gesture suggests an easy continuity between Ball’s art practice and activism. Its inclusion implies that for contemporary Indigenous artists, aesthetics and politics, like nature and culture, remain inseparable and are deeply entangled within the ongoing struggle for survival, justice, and human rights.

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