Q&A with Gregg Deal: Humor, Irony and Street Art


Early in his career, artist Gregg Deal was asked, “Can you make your work more Indian?” As a card-carrying member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, he said he considers himself “a Native artist with a Native voice," but the comment caused him to take a step back and re-examine his work. He now describes his art as “in-your-face social commentary,” using humor to combat pop culture misconceptions and stereotypes.

Last month, for example, Deal made waves in social media, protesting Gap's new black-and-white T-shirts printed with “Manifest Destiny” across the chest. The term, which was historically used to justify U.S. expansion into the West during the 19th century, immediately incited public outcry.

"Ultimately these shirts and their words are comments in consumerism, cultural insensitivity, cultural identity and the historical understanding of the various bits of Americana," Deal wrote on his website. In response, he designed alternate versions of the T-shirt, with phrases like "Forced Assimilation" and "Mass Genocide."

Gap eventually pulled its product from its shelves, after consumers continued to express their outrage.

As Gap replied via Twitter to Deal (aka @the_lame_sauce): "Thanks for your feedback about the 'Manifest Destiny' t-shirt. Based on customer feedback, we will no longer sell the T."

Since then, Deal was selected as a finalist for Benevolent Media's inaugural Pitch Night, held on November 5 in Washington, D.C. Deal gave a 3-minute pitch on another Native-themed project: The Romantic Nationalism Project, a street art campaign using "Native themes, ideas, misconceptions and stereotypes to present indigenous issues with humor and a sense of irony through visuals," as he wrote in his pitch proposal.

Currently, he is working on the Missing Indian Wall. The art campaign was inspired by New York's “missing person” walls, created in the wake of 9/11. These walls of notes and photos accumulated gifts of flowers, candles and stuffed animals, turning into vigils over the weeks and months that followed the attacks on the World Trade Center. Gregg is compiling a similar missing-wall-turned-vigil using photos and flyers of Native people, some still living, some deceased, “representing Native people as having been missing or misplaced within American culture and history.”

We sat down with him to learn more about the Missing Indian Wall project, which will be showcased at Submerge, a series of free “flash art” events, presented by No Kings Collective, on November 10-18 in D.C.

Gregg is seeking support via social media: “Please come to my show, take pictures, pass them along via Twitter or Facebook. My art is social commentary; if it touches you, share it!”

What’s the overall goal of the Missing Indian Wall project?

I’m trying to create something meaningful and thoughtful, something with deep insight, without pointing fingers or spelling everything out completely. I’m going for shock value, but also trying to engage the viewer’s deeper attention. I don’t want to get too serious, because then nobody listens. Serious is boring!

How will you measure the social impact of your work? For Submerge, I’m creating a website and using social media to build a community for discussion. But I’m also hoping to create change through word of mouth, to pose questions that nobody is asking. If somebody is willing to ask a question and you’re willing to have a conversation, that’s one more person who’s open-minded enough to have a real discussion. Then, they might take the next step of asking more questions or re-examining their opinions.

Who is your target audience? Anybody who’s a non-Native. “Indian Country,” in general, is going through a lot of change right now. The race wars have been greatly affected by President Obama. Some of our goals and dreams are now more realistic and approachable, but there’s also more hate and discrimination now than there was 10 or 15 years ago. It used to be a political correctness issue, but now hipsters can wear “Manifest Destiny" T-shirts, or dress up in feather headdresses for Halloween parties, and somehow that’s appropriate.

I’m not angry about this. It’s just awkward. There’s nothing more awkward than when I go to a Halloween party and someone is dressed up as an Indian and they come up to me and try to have a conversation to justify how they’re dressed. If someone can go to a party dressed up as an Indian, then no one is asking the right questions.

What is the next step for this project? After Submerge, I’d like to create this same piece for a street art installation in D.C., either a permanent exhibit or a 1- or 2-day installation, in a highly trafficked area; something that will make people stop and look.