When Lawrence artist Mona Cliff traveled with her family as a child, she encountered Native American imagery and artifacts for sale at truck stops. In time, she became desensitized to seeing her culture appropriated and reanimated into kitschy souvenirs.
This week, Cliff, an Indigenous visual artist of the Gros Ventre tribe, was one of three artists presenting work that grapples with how roadside attractions can diminish people’s identities.
The exhibit, called “Roadside Inappropriation,” was on display inside Teepee Junction, at U.S. 24 and 40 highways north of Lawrence, for two days.
For the project, the artists each created a display responding to attractions that appropriated elements of their cultures or portrayed people as caricatures.
Artist Erika Nelson has wanted to arrange an exhibit like this for a long time.
Nelson owns the World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things, a roadside attractions museum in Lucas, Kansas, that contains small versions of the world’s largest roadside attractions. She has identified and studied roadside attractions that depend on a stereotype or a cartoonish look at a specific culture.
In this exhibit, she wanted to ask who these attractions were built for, who they are serving, and how the people being depicted feel about them.
Nelson has pondered the concept for the exhibit for nearly a decade, but she needed other artists to engage in her idea.
“I asked them a very hard question of, ‘Hey, here’s something very awkward to talk about. Do you want to talk about it?’” Nelson said. “And my first-choice asks said yes, and I can’t believe they did, because these are amazing, high-profile artists.”
Armando Minjarez, of Wichita, responded to “La Salsa Man,” a muffler man on display in Dodge City.
Muffler men are giant fiberglass statues that oversee the road and draw attention to the towns in which they are placed. The one in Dodge City depicts a caricature of a Mexican man, with a sombrero and a mustache.
In his response, Minjarez made 50 plaster casts of his own face, using about seven different colors for skin tone. Then he transformed the casts into “Mexican planters.” The only facial feature he varied on each is the mustache: sometimes it’s long, sometimes short and stubby, sometimes nonexistent.
The planters are displayed like souvenirs and on the bottom is a label identifying a regional identity: Mexican, Peruvian, Lebanese.
“I wanted to pose the question to the public, ‘What is a Mexican supposed to look like?’” Minjarez said. “I’m really not telling you what’s right or wrong, but kind of putting you in a space where you have to kind of struggle with that.”
Minjarez aimed to challenge people who viewed his exhibit “in a way that maybe they didn’t realize until they started interacting with the piece,” he said.
Cliff was eager to engage in the project, frustrated at seeing Native culture appropriated as souvenir items for commercial gain throughout her life.
“From my perspective, as a Native person who comes from a tribe who uses teepees regularly, using them in our ceremonies and at social gatherings, it’s worrisome for me … seeing a teepee (out of context),” she said. “I really kind of tongue-in-cheek wanted to address it by actually putting a teepee inside a teepee.”
Cliff created a teepee that defies expectations, displaying more contemporary designs on the outside. A projection of a buffalo trotting on the plains was cast upon a nearby screen.
“So it’s kind of marrying these two really taken out of context images, because in my experience waking up in a teepee and stepping outside, you’re just out in nature, but here it’s taken out of that context,” Cliff said.
For Nelson’s part, she created a work responding to the “Ozark Halfwit,” a 25-foot statue of a red-headed hillbilly stationed at the Lake of the Ozarks.
Nelson recreated an enlarged version of the hillbilly’s head, with an open mouth people could crawl in.
“I couldn’t be the person responding to those (other attractions) because the only thing I know is growing up a hillbilly,” Nelson said.
Inside the head of the hillbilly, viewers were struck with a rich display of sketches, photos and paintings. In one collage, you see the word “work” multiple times. Nearby is a nuanced sketch of the head you’re standing inside, challenging the idea that hillbillies are lazy and uneducated.
The artists said they hoped viewers would enjoy the display and be inspired to think about the deeper underlying issues.
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Chansi Long (she/her) reported for The Lawrence Times from July 2022 through August 2023. Read more of her work for the Times here.
Molly Adams (she/her), photojournalist and news operations coordinator for The Lawrence Times, can be reached at molly (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Check out more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.