Sometimes art illuminates a painful part of our shared history to provoke thought and discussion, or to instigate action. Powerful images settle into our subconscious in ways that can be more effective than words alone. And nowhere, barring slavery, are our past transgressions as a nation more underscored than colonialist Western expansion into North America. This shameful history of colonialism and imperialism still bleeds into our current lives and is manifested by epic political divides, intolerance, hate and mistrust of the ‘Other.’ We have become anesthetized to countless -isms and phobias; though we talk about being a progressive nation and in many ways we are, the legacy of our past still haunts us. At the cusp of a new decade, it seems prudent to learn from the past so we don’t repeat it. Of course, art alone can’t fix society’s ills, but some visual images might have the power to seep into our collective unconscious, spark outrage and perhaps ultimately, provoke real change.
Bradley Wind’s layered resin and acrylic painting (23 ⅝” x 20 ⅞” x 2”) entitled Ishi appears poised to do just that. The story of Ishi, named after the Yahi word for ‘man’ by the anthropologist who was studying him, is representative of colonialism, xenophilia, greed, and fear. In 1865, Ishi and his family of Native American Indians of the Yahi tribe were attacked by settlers in the Three Knolls Massacre in California. Ishi and his family survived and went into hiding for decades. After another attack in 1908 in which several of his immediate family members were killed by settlers, Ishi spent three years alone in the wilderness before being captured around age 50 on August 29, 1911 near Oroville, California . He was thought to be the last (or one of the last) American Indians of his tribe. He was subsequently dubbed “The Last Wild Indian.”  He received the attention of thousands of onlookers, and was literally housed in a museum of anthropology, where he worked as a janitor, was studied, and where spectators could watch him make arrows and show elements of Yahi culture. There was no evidence that he had any choice to do otherwise . He was a man who was wrenched away from his homeland and his unique culture; the people he loved were murdered, and he was on display, as if he were merely a curiosity. As a kind man with a positive disposition, he befriended the anthropologist and the crowds who came to gawk at him, showing more humanity and decency than many of his captors. He died of TB, an infectious disease brought in by the gold rush, on March 25, 1916 .
From a distance, this painting looks like an orange flame (a flame of remembrance?) against a darker background; on closer inspection there is an unsmiling, rigidly standing man, awkwardly dressed in western garb, seemingly engulfed by rays of light. These rays of light, possibly conveying unwanted media attention, or even prison bars, seem to almost obscure his image, as if negating his true identity, his indigenous culture. Around him is painted a prison-like atmosphere, with fuzzy clouds seemingly of steel wool, blocking him from glancing around himself in either direction. This is an agonizing portrait of our disgraceful past, one that still pervades our country despite progressive thoughts. As noted by anthropologist Laurie Wilkie, Ishi is “the face of an ongoing genocide.” This hauntingly beautiful image, as painful as it is, crisply captures a seeping, oozing, hateful sentiment that is still alive, and perhaps by seeing it in all of its rawness and power, it can force us to forge a new beginning as we approach the threshold of a new decade.