|Lady in Love III, alabaster, 70 inches long|
Using saws, chisels and grinders, Bob Haozous creates sensuous stone, metal and wood forms that combine pointed social commentary with an abiding concern for beauty and grace. Haozous shares a love of polished, finished surfaces with his famous sculptor father, Allan Houser, but there the father-son similarity ends. While Houser's work is the epitome of lyrical, Native American ideals of beauty, harmony and pride, Haozous is concerned with the experience and the meaning of the contemporary Indian individual, and his sculpture often has a satirical or ironic bite.
Haozous is articulate and soft-spoken. When he talks, there's a sense about him of restrained intensity and enthusiasm--not that anything's going unsaid, but that words are delivered with a curious lack of passion. Perhaps he saves the passion for his work.
We talked in his studio, atop a hill a few miles west of Santa Fe.
I just returned from a show in Texas, and these people said, "Why are you doing this kind of work? It's not Indian art!"
What do they think Indian art is?
Decorative. No philosophy, no religion, just an extension of Indian craft. The whole subject kind of burns me up.
Let's ease into it then. What's the source of your art?
In one way or another, I think most of my art is based on my childhood. I was born in Los Angeles, but I grew up in Utah. This was during the '50s, what they called the `termination' period, when the government sent Indian kids away from the reservations to schools, cut off their hair, forbid them to speak their own language. My mother and father both worked at one of those Indian schools, in northern Utah, but I went to a public school, and that was strange. The kids of the Indian employees were separate from the anglos, separate from the Indian kids in the Indian school...but that experience was instrumental in what I'm doing know. It gave me a distance. The people I grew up with, the ones my friends and I respected for their wit, their intelligence, their sensitivity--they either became artists or alcoholics. Some of them are dead now. The others, to survive, totally divorced themselves from their Indian culture.
As soon as we could, we all left. I'm finding that a number of my old friends are beginning to congregate here in Santa Fe--Gail Bird and Yazzie Johnson, who are jewelers, Robert Shorty, a sculptor, Harold Littlebird, who's a poet and potter, and my brother, Phil Haozous, another jeweler.
Can you be specific about how your early experience has been reflected in your art?
Well, the experience wasn't urban, it wasn't reservation. It was a contemporary setting where we could pretty much make our own rules. I had a generalized Indian awareness, and what I'm doing now is to try and generalize in the statements I make with my work. Rather than express any particular tribe's ways or rules or symbols, I try and express the general Indian awareness.
How do you characterize that awareness?
The non-Indian philosophy is based on the Western tradition of man as being superior to everything else on earth. The Native American says man is an equal part of everything. To the Indian, God couldn't look like man. I'm not a religious man. On the other hand, I feel I have a responsibility to somehow privately form my own religion.
You whitewashed some of your early sculptures. Was that intended as a literal symbol?
Yes. That's the general American idea that if you can't control something, manipulate it, whitewash it, it's not right. So I started painting things white. I did a wood piece once called Initiation, which showed a lady holding a mask. She looked Indian, but you weren't sure, and the mask was painted white. There were these beautiful cracks in the wood and in the woman, and the guy who bought the piece filled them in. He whitewashed the whole thing.
Didyou experience a lot of the whitewash while you were growing up?
I knew people in Utah, Indian people, who joined the Mormon Church. They were taught that if they really believed in the church, their skin would turn white. And those people believed it. That's the power of the dominant culture. I've never made a point of wearing Indian jewelry or clothes, because everyone has tried so hard to look like an Indian. I don't care what people look like. Appearances are so unimportant. When I was in school--California College of Arts and Crafts, in Oakland--I wanted to go through as a neutral person. People thought I was Italian. Teachers tried to get us to dig into our past, but at that time I was more interested in intellectual and technical stimulus. The one time that I painted an Indian, the teacher gave me an A, and it was the last painting I did.
Has your father had much influence on your work?
He gave us clay when we were kids, critiqued our drawings. But he was aware of the harm that could be caused by pushing us, and he didn't. He looks traditional, but he's very tolerant. I think the most important thing I've learned from my dad.... In his work, everything is intentional. I admire that. It's a professionalism I want, too. I want control. Many people stop working on a piece too soon. They stop when they think the piece is salable, rather than when it's finished. That's why you see so much rough rock in sculpture. They're not finished.
Most of your figures are women.
They always have been. I started doing degraded Mother Earth images. Indians view Mother Earth as the live earth, anglos view her as a woman with big breasts, big hips, a very dominant woman. So I did the anglo attitude. When Indian societies were destroyed, it was the men's roles that were ravaged. In my tribe [Apache], for example, the men were hunters, raiders, and the women took care of the families. When the men lost the ability to do the hunting, there was nothing left. The woman became very dominant--luckily, because they held things together.
But aren't you often sculpting Anglo women?
I decided I would do Indian art that portrays non-Indians. So, yes, I do anglos, I expose them, in a strange way. The men all have a gun, a symbol of a false sense of manhood. Having a gun is like using technology to rule rather than instinct. On the women, I often put necklaces, like the hippies in the '60s wore. They'd put on a necklace and think they were relating to the noble savage. But they didn't relate to who the Indian really was! With my women, I was dealing with the surface decoration to show how all this stuff affects the stone. But the stone, its essence, is still there, underneath, and showing through all that other stuff.
|"M," painted wood, 60 inches tall|
I guess I had a lot to say with that one. I wanted to put an anglo, or an anglo-looking woman in a Southwest landscape. She's a friend who...just say she's dissatisfied--with herself, with the landscape, the place. I put her with her soldiers, her ten little white men. She's naked, offering you everything. She's aggressive. The rabbit next to her is timid. He's in the environment. She's a beautiful shell, easily obtained and empty. The hearts--they promise true love, what she thinks she wants. The piece is a hinged triptych, like an altar piece. She stands on top of the hill, blocking the environment, the beauty, offering something very unimportant. She's like the beautiful people who come here, thinking the landscape is so beautiful, and then they put a house on top of the hill and ruin the landscape.
All the images in your work seem to have very particular meanings. What are the chrome balls you've added to some of your stone sculptures?
I did that first in Woman with Necklace. First of all, I like the contrast between marble and chrome. People hated them, so I carved planes and clouds into the surface of her dress. She's till a Navajo woman, but she's controlled by her new environment. No matter where you are, you see planes in the air. The chrome balls are technology, but they are beautiful forms, too.
Sometimes your symbolism is pointed, but your forms are almost always very lush, beautiful. Some of the women, especially, are reminiscent of Lachaise.
I've always admired him. His forms are so simple, yet so difficult to do. They're earth forms, the simple forms. It's what I want. Doing sculpture, especially Native American sculpture, it's so easy to rely on the decorativeness and forget the forms.
And what about the pieces that appear to be nothing but form, the donut-shaped sculptures?
I think of them as Zen forms, and I don't know how any of this we've been talking about relates to them. They don't need my signature. What's the old thing--artists are afraid of their death? These pieces aren't like that. They're not related to immortality, to ego. They don't need me. They're themselves. They are mine, but they're anonymous, too. I'd like to just bury them, and hope that someday someone would dig them up and wonder about them. I like them, I guess, because they're instinctual.
What's the connection with Zen?
I love archery, and I was reading Zen and the Art of Archery, and I was trying to understand how sometimes an arrow would go just where it was supposed to go. I began looking for the same thing in art, and somehow this form symbolizes that for me.
How did you find it?
I did a carving once of a happy man, and he was holding up this shape, which looked like a donut. I loved the shape and how it worked as a symbol.
Does it have a specific meaning?
I've used it both as a female symbol and a symbol of the universe. My work has been going in two different directions--one is these universal symbols, which I don't really understand yet, and the other is representational sculpture, using Native American symbols and ideas. Eventually I think they'll come together.
Individuality is important to you, but you come from such a tribal, community-oriented background.
I want to combine the two. I try to relate how Indians were by how I am. That individuality, expressing that, is important to me. It's important that I do what pleases me. Native American's have tended to do things just because it pleases them, like I do with my donuts--not for money, but because it pleases me. Unfortunately, that's changing for many Indian artists. They're trying to describe, to explain, to please someone else, and the work ends up decorative, with no individuality. I'd like to see Indian artists refer more to themselves, using history as a reference. That would be cultural art, and art has to be cultural.
Do you find that money is a factor in the production of so much decorative art?
The goal for most artists is financial reward, and that's a shame. But the fact that we have no cultural art says we don't want it yet. Two of my donuts used to stand out in front of the gallery, and everyone had to touch them, which was wonderful, but after a while, some kids dumped them, turned them over. It was kind of an anti-art statement by them, which I can certainly understand. This society isn't ready for fine art.
But it's not the artists fault. I often feel pressure from critics and gallery people to keep things simple, decorative, salable. They don't want to be challenged or strained. My White Buffalo, for example. People liked the form, but they didn't like it when I put the hole in it and added the hand. The hole is a bullet hole, and the hand symbolized the signature of man. It's man who's killing himself. But it's not that simple for me, either. The hole is also a Zen hole. It causes you to wonder.
Isn't it a legitimate goal, though, to want to simplify your art, your statement?
Yes, but it takes years, experience.... It's something for older artists. They have no choice. They have all that culture behind them. My grandfather, who had ridden with Geronimo, was an Indian sheriff, and when I was about six years old, he used to shoot with us. He had this very particular way of shooting. He'd snap his arm down real fast and shoot, while we always extended our arms and aimed so carefully. I could never understand why he shot that way. Then I was out riding the other day, and I saw a rabbit. I tried to aim an imaginary gun at it, and I found that there was no way I could aim while riding. The only way to shoot from horseback is to snap your arm down as my grandfather had done. He had hundreds of years of experience and culture behind him, and I was too dumb to see it.
Are you an Indian artist?
Of course, though my definition might be a little different than some others. If I deal in my art with my environment, my reality, it reflects my culture. And my culture is Indian. But it is my culture, not my parents' or my grandparents' culture. I don't have my grandfather's eyes, thank goodness. You can't go back.
--Stephen Parks, August, 1981