This interview took place in Clifton. The sun had made a tentative appearance and Bristolians, for the most part seemed pleased with the effort. In the lounge of a plush social club, we talked like old chums. Del Curfman has a calm, affable nature that lends itself to a friendly discussion, but his passion for his work, his culture, and his experiences simultaneously create the potential for more in-depth debates. With a full head of jet black curls and a smile that is never too far from sight, Curfman’s metamorphosis is that of a man who’s boyish charm lingers, so much so he might have been the subject of an old master’s rendition of youth. The artist opened up about discovering the living traditions of his people, the Apsáalooke, of the Crow Nation in Montana, USA.
Art in Academia
What’s your medium and how did you get into art?
Oil paints on board, canvas or linen. I originally started out in the foundations of drawing, it was something I was interested in and had an ability and talent for. I didn’t even know where to take it. Then I enrolled in my tribal community college in Crow Agency Montana, where I found out my passion was truly in the arts. So, through a series of events I actually ended up in DC and realised very quickly that I needed to have a post-secondary schooling (a Bachelors in fine arts). My uncle had a huge influence on me and asked me what I was interested in. My first answer was art. So I applied to the Institute of American Indian Arts in 2012.
There’s a lot of support for academia in schools here. People think pursuing a career in the arts is futile. What would you say to this point of view?
Art is expansive. There are a lot of opportunities for anyone who wants to get involved. They may not be producing artwork but I believe – at least in America – there are many opportunities to be creative. I think the world is run on creative energy and everyone has an artistic level to them that just needs to be focused. So if pessimists are saying you can’t make money in the arts, I’m saying people are already doing it. It’s just how you define it.
The Meaning Behind The Art
How do you feel about talking about your art? Other artists clam up, hoping you’d respond to their art in your own way so there’s no need for rhetoric. Would you agree with that sentiment?
The work I keep in the gallery is for sale. It’s a part of me, my culture and I’m trying to get that out to the world and let other people know what Crow culture is about. Cultural elements of Crow are in these paintings and I’m glad to share that. It’s getting awareness, I don’t know how many people are aware of Native American culture in Bristol… It’s important to me to let culture thrive and to have interested folks come look at Native art and be enthralled and hopefully learn a little bit.
I’m always willing to share the stories, my work is really relevant to those because I’m working with culture. I’m trying to relay time, space and movement in regards to my Crow heritage, in the Vanishing series. The Solstice is about a connection to animals through oral history. So these are important cultural elements I need to speak on and relate to the prospective interested folks. It’s kind of my job, I’m not trying to keep this information away because these are open. Certain ceremonies aren’t supposed to be shared and I’d never try to share or give ownership of that.
Culture & Education
Both you and Joanne have noted at different points that you’re experience of ‘mainstream culture’ has not been so inviting. Joanne (Prince, Director at rainmaker Gallery) wants Native artists to visit the UK to see that they’re valued as individuals, not stereotypes. What do you make of that?
It’s funny, Native artists are always labelled “Native Artists.” You never think of them as artists, at least not in America. From birth, we a re pigeon holed into creating Native art, no matter if we’re creating Native things. If you’re a beader you’re supposed to be traditional. If you’re not doing that, then you break the mold. Even if you bead a Darth Vader portrait, that’s contemporary art but it’s still native because you’re using Native materials and you’re native. Guidelines and restrictions are placed on native artists specifically because of their ethnicity.
So that’s mainstream culture: you don’t think of an Anglo or a white person being an artist and think “oh that’s a white artist” that’s just how society operates. You can be an African artist or a black artist, but if you’re an artist with a light complexion you’re not questioned, there are no labels. You can’t escape that label, although many Native artists try to run from out. Many think how do I get you out of this, and it almost becomes a crutch for some. There’s a flip side, some use it to their advantage and embrace it and others say this is not what I want – I’m native but I don’t make “Native Art.” So there are two sides to that coin.
How did you meet Joanne Prince?
A mentor of mine introduced me: Tony Abeyta. I was the Merchandise and Design fellow for SWAIA (Southwestern Association for Indian Art) at the summer market of 2015. Tony has been friends with Joanne for quite some time. She goes to him for advice on bringing artists to Rainmaker Gallery for Indian art. Being a mentor to me, Tony kindly told Joanne to come by my booth and see what kind of work I was doing. She came by, was impressed and thought it was a good idea to talk about it. We decided to get the show, Apsaálooke, together.
Hence why everybody needs a good mentor or three! Were you apprehensive at the thought of your work going overseas?
No. At the market I sold to international travellers. I sold to Germany, France. So my work was already going overseas at this point and people from different nationalities are already buying art and taking it back home. I wasn’t afraid to get out there.
It feels gauche calling this recognition of Native artists a ‘movement,’ but it can feel like that. Is it better to unite through culture or educate through hard-hitting satire?
I see validity in both perspectives: you can’t let go of a past that is still affecting the future. I see artists who dwell on the negative as artists who need to use their art as cathartic revelations. Obviously, they’ve had experiences in their lives that forced them to make this art. As I think we all have. But adding value to these hardships can put up a wall. It’s very aggressive in nature. I think it’s really the level of execution and what you’re trying to say with the art that’s most important to me as an artist.
You grew up on and off the reservation. The non-Native people, the white people, you had the closest contact with were not traditionally accepting of others.
Montana is in the Northern Territory of USA, bordering Canada. White Montanans there already have their preconceived notions, their own ideas on race, ethnicity and who they are as Americans. Natives have never separated themselves by ethnicity or tribe. Others have. There are a lot of labels in America and that’s really defining of who you are.
You’ve only been in Bristol for a short while. Would you come back and would you say you got to realise one of Joanne’s aims of seeing a different side to ‘outsiders,’ – white, black or otherwise?
Yes, of course. With each experience, your ideas change –
Yes, I think so. I never envisioned my life taking me here, especially from my background. Humble beginnings, spending my summers at home, on a reservation in rural Montana. (Bristol) is definitely beautiful in its own right, very interesting. There seem to be fewer labels here. Of course, I’d come back, it seems like a very lovely place.
Del’s solo exhibition, Apsáalooke, is currently showing at Rainmaker Gallery until August 6th. Visit www.rainmakerart.co.uk/apsaalooke for more information.
Originally published on Bristol 24/7.