Cahuilla, b. 1954
Suburban Skookum (Self-portrait), 2018
Plasticized painted and printed cloth, printed Tyvek, 3D printed plastic, electric fan
Collection of the artist
In his work Suburban Skookum, artist Lewis deSoto subverts the non-Native economy of Skookum dolls, which were created and sold in the early 1900s by a woman from Missoula, Montana, named Mary Dwyer McAboy. These dolls depicted a standard, stereotypical image of an Indigenous person wrapped in a blanket with a stoic expression and long black hair. In contrast, deSoto’s doll carries an inhaler and wears Minolta camera around its neck, which signifies a link to the artist’s history of creating sound installations and making sound recordings of Indigenous oral histories. The figure also carries a microphone and audio recorder and wears a flame-covered loincloth and a T-shirt featuring the cover artwork from King Crimson’s 1973 album Larks’ Tongues in Aspic. It stands atop a tire with the words “no such thing as wilderness” articulated along its side. DeSoto nimbly code-switches between essentialized metaphorical visual vocabularies of Indigeneity and American suburbanity, often taking reductive depictions that play against stereotypical notions presented as inherent truth with an alternate reading. By doing so, deSoto unsettles ideas of identity and Indigenous imagery. He also upends colonial frameworks such as Manifest Destiny, the 19th century ideology stating that westward expansion of settlers was inevitable, which was in part perpetuated through terms like “wilderness.” Wilderness was repeatedly used to justify land grabs; if the American state asserted that the land was untamed wilderness, then the notion existed that the land was vacant and therefore could be claimed. DeSoto’s body is draped in a blanket featuring a rendering of the smallpox virus on the back, a clear reference to the colonial use of biological warfare against Indigenous peoples by giving them smallpox-infected blankets.
Lewis deSoto is a multidisciplinary artist living and working in Napa, Calif. His work is included in major museums as well as corporate and private collections. DeSoto’s practice includes photography, sound installations, sculpture as well as work with customized cars as sculptural objects. He became interested in photography and automobiles as a child, noting that some of the first photographs he took when he was 10 years old were of model cars. DeSoto holds an MFA from Claremont Graduate School and a B.A. in studio art with a specialized study in Buddhist religion from the University of California, Riverside. He has had solo exhibitions at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida, and the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. Additionally, his work has been featured at the SITE Santa Fe biennial, Wave Hill in the Bronx, N.Y., and the San Antonio Museum of Art.