Urbana art spotlights Chief controversy

By Megan Graham

Artist Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds was featured in an opening reception Wednesday for his work titled “Beyond the Chief.”

Heap of Birds, whose work has been exhibited in museums including the Smithsonian and the Museum of Modern Art, designed 12 signs placed along west Nevada Street in Urbana, reading “inillI gnithgiF, Today your host is…” followed by name of an indigenous tribe.

The work is a part of his series titled “Native Host.” Heap of Birds asked students, staff members and professors to help him choose the names of tribes he used on the signs.

“His art is a form of protest. He really pushes his issues with his artwork,” said James Fortier, guest artist-in-residence for American Indian Studies.

“Beyond the Chief,” according to Heap of Birds, urges the audience to look into the past of the indigenous peoples that once populated Illinois.

Robert Warrior, director of the American Indian Studies Program and the Native American House, said he believes the placement of the signs helps make the exhibit more meaningful for the audience. The signs are displayed outside instead of in an indoor exhibit.

“Sometimes art doesn’t really have a context, and that’s why it’s not successful,” said Heap of Birds.

Heap of Birds also touched on the meaning of the “Native Host” series on the University campus and discussed the concept of the Chief as a focal point.

“Commercialism and festival … the real chief isn’t about that,” said Heap of Birds. “Humbleness is behind what a chief is.”

Heap of Birds explained that chiefs give up all of their private property to their people and lead “through generosity.” His own name “Heap of Birds” came from a Cheyenne chief.

Warrior said he was honored to have the work of Heap of Birds as a part of the University campus.

“Edgar Heap of Birds is one of the most acclaimed artists of his generation,” said Warrior. “I’ve always been struck by Ed’s generosity as an artist and his ability to bring people in.”

Heap of Birds will be giving a lecture about his artwork at noon on Thursday at the School of Art and Design, Room 229, 408 E. Peabody Drive in Champaign.