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MIA exhibit honors life and legacy of artist Jim Denomie

Standing Rock (2016) by Jim Denomie. (Image Courtesy of Minnesota Institute of Art)

Jim Denomie was an influential visual artist who used painting to share his perspective as an Ojibwe man in America. Denomie died in March of 2022 from cancer at the age of 66. In remembrance, the Minneapolis Institute of Art is hosting the retrospective “The Lyrical Artwork of Jim Denomie.”

Denomie’s work is known for taking a biting look at America’s treatment of Indigenous people, past and present. Denomie’s work combines bright colors and playful metaphors, adding light and humor to what are often dark themes. Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ Nicole Soukup curated the exhibition; Soukup speaks highly of Denomie’s work, but she says it is too soon to define his legacy.

“Americans privilege those who speak truth to power, but we often forget the immense vulnerability and generosity required to speak.” she said. “His artworks are generous gifts. They remind us of humanity and, by extension, history’s complexity. Yes, America offers great liberties and freedoms, but our current comforts came at an immense cost—genocide, enslavement, systemic violence, and marginalization. At the same time, Jim created works that spoke to his soul.”

Soukup says MIA acquired Denomie’s renowned “Standing Rock (2016)” piece shortly before Denomie’s illness took a turn. The controversial painting was inspired by the thousands of protesters and environmental activists that took a stand against the Dakota Access Pipeline. In it former President Donald Trump can be seen groping Lady Justice, men are dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes, and authorities threaten protestors with two-headed guard dogs. Soukop remembers calling Denomie to confirm details of the monumental painting while he was battling cancer.

“Despite the gravity of his situation, Jim did write back—yes, that is Obama on the toilet, and yes, that is a duck peeking out from between his legs.” says Soukup. “The vignette represents the tenure of the former president’s final years in office—in other words, a ‘lame duck’ presidency.”

Soukup says Denomie’s use of humor will always be remembered as a key part of his surrealist narrative style. He used it to create space for difficult, yet necessary conversations about the experiences of Indigenous people.

“He firmly believed in personal accountability – that people, not systems, made the decisions that led to events like the Dakota Access Pipeline and treaty violations. This human element, this sense of humanity, is frequently lost when we read history books or watch the news. Yet it is ever present in Jim’s oeuvre,” Soukup said. “These one-two punches of hyper-personal iconography and satire fuse together to create truly dynamic works.”

MIA presents “The Lyrical Artwork of Jim Denomie” through March 24, 2024; admission is free and open to the public.

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