« Return to this article

Know the West

‘Love and Fury’ documents Indigenous artists at the vanguard

Sterlin Harjo’s latest film is a fascinating glimpse inside the minds of various Indigenous artists around the nation.

 

In Sterlin Harjo’s raw portrait of Chickasaw musician Micah P. Hinson, the viewer is witness to an intriguing mix of intelligence, courage and intimacy.
Courtesy film still

At the beginning of Sterlin Harjo’s new documentary, Love and Fury, an odyssey that follows Indigenous artists around the world, we are introduced to the film’s most fascinating character, the visceral Chickasaw musician, Micah P. Hinson. He bounds on stage in Brussels, woozy from a nap (or other things), a bit confused. With a cigarette dangling from his lips, he optimistically mutters under his breath, in a south Okie drawl, “We’re gonna see how this goes.”

It’s a rare thing to see a fully nuanced portrait of an Indigenous artist in full agency. Darlene Naponse gave us a fictional glimpse of one in her 2018 feature film, Falls Around Her, and that was great, but otherwise it’s a pretty dry well. In Harjo’s raw portrait of Hinson, we are witness to an intriguing mix of intelligence, courage, and intimacy.

This is Harjo’s second feature documentary, and much as in his first, 2014’s This May Be The Last Time, he’s very much a character in the film. There he is, hugging Muscogee Creek U.S. poet laureate Joy Harjo; there he is in the toilet, making fart noises with Lakota multidisciplinary artist Cannupa Hanska Luger; there he is again, on the street with Micah Hinson, who vapes enough weed to make him forget his own lyrics. Watching Love and Fury is very much like watching Harjo catch up with old friends. The Indigenous art world is small. Everyone knows everyone, or is two degrees from doing so; they just haven’t managed to meet each other yet. This familiarity is part of what makes Love and Fury such a distinctly Indigenous effort. It’s hard to see how the film would have worked, going through a non-Native intermediary.

Harjo bounces from Paris, to Brussels, to New York City, to Tulsa, and all parts in between, catching up with U.S.-based Indigenous artists: painters, sculptors, musicians, writers. The musicians mostly play music, while some of the artists pontificate more than others. There’s a lot of footage of Cannupa Hanska Luger, beginning with a research and development trip in Plymouth, England, as the Native American representative of “America” for the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower voyage. As he participates in various talking circles and panels, he fully recognizes the ridiculousness of the concept. “Apparently, they couldn’t find a Wampanoag,” he says with a grin. The whole endeavor is interesting to watch, while imagining having to explain the viewpoints of 574 federally recognized tribes leaves the viewer with a sense of how exhausting it must have been.

Harjo, an Indigenous artist himself, can empathize and laugh along with his subjects. A drunk white girl rudely interrupts a table where Harjo is informally interviewing a group of Alaskan artists. “Are you a man or a woman?” she asks Inupiaq artist Aku Matu, then proceeds to touch Matu’s traditional chin marking and grabs her hat. After the girl finally stumbles away, someone (It sounds like Harjo) at the table says, “What the fuck?” It’s hard to beat solidarity like that in a director.

Musician, composer and artist Laura Ortman (White Mountain Apache) in ‘Love and Fury.’
Courtesy film still

A lot of Indigenous artists are captured in the film, but the two that interested me the most (besides Hinson) were New York-based Nez Perce jazz singer Julia Keefe and Osage/Cherokee/Muscogee Creek painter Yatika Fields. Keefe recalls growing up as a child on her reservation and being drawn to the dark music of Billie Holliday, something that, as she readily admits, “is a weird thing for a wee child to listen to.” Keefe balances the melancholy of jazz with her own particular brand of dark humor; she even channels Jim Carrey in one scene. Sober and clean-living since the age of 22, she describes herself as “the most boring jazz singer.”

[RELATED:https://www.hcn.org/articles/indigenous-affairs-culture-5-films-to-indigenize-your-watch-at-home-movie-list]

Fields, who grew up in an artistic family, clearly understands Indian art history. He succinctly dissects the contemporary Indian art world, discussing differences in “fine art” versus the type of Indian art that caters to markets like the ones in Santa Fe and Phoenix. While he doesn’t fault anyone who needs to sell art to feed a family, he acknowledges that such artwork “doesn’t do anything for me.” These are great and unique discussions rarely had in cinema.

At the end of the film, we return to Hinson, who sings a laconic ballad in his studio in Denison, Texas. The music is juxtaposed with a jarring visual that brings Hinson back down to earth. Hinson’s story, like those of the other artists in Love and Fury, is important; they matter. If not for this film, we might never have heard them. The work that goes into being an artist, in addition to carrying the weight and responsibility of being Indigenous, is significant. Sterlin Harjo, who is part of the party while documenting it, gives us something new to chew on.

Jason Asenap is a Comanche and Muscogee Creek writer and director (and an occasional actor) based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.