Artist Statement

From the moment our eyes absorb photons of light to the moment the image is registered in the back our brain there is a tenth of a second delay. I believe that our spirits have no restrictions of time, and that tenth of a second becomes an eternity for them to perceive what we see. In this eternity is pure chaos of seemingly infinite possibilities, which I can only compare to what science calls “String Theory,” and the prediction of extra dimensions.  The “old Indian trick” is learning to listen to what your spirits are helping you to perceive. I can only explain it as tuning out “reality” and basking in the chaos of limitless imagination.

Born Anishinabe (Chippewa) yet raised by a Lakota man, I grew up around Lakota ceremonies. I have no special powers outside of the power to dream. Of the many ethereal places my dreams have taken me, the place it has taken me most consistently is my past lives and dimensions that have realities that can’t exist in our dimension. With this lifetime I have become a professional student that is skilled in almost every technical aspect of the arts, yet I am not a master of any trade skill.  My pursuit of the fine arts started in 2006 when I had a year left to graduate with a degree in Visual Communications.  In 2006 I had a traumatic brain injury (TBI) that drastically changed my life; I forgot all training I had received pertaining to Computer Graphics animation and subsequently lost an internship possibility with Disney Pixar. At this time I was half way through a four year commitment to my “Sundance” ceremonies, and in my recovery I learned to mix my ceremonial experience and my art practice as a therapy to regain an understanding of reality.  

I have always had a fear of being a cliché “Indian artist,” creating art that had literal representations of what popular culture believes is “Indian,” and worry about my work being labeled “Bambi Art.”  In my pursuit to be an Indian artist without using Indian imagery, I borrowed George Morrison’s philosophy that the “Indian Values” are inherent in my work.

Very few times in life have I done work with literal “Indian” imagery, and when I have I felt I had to defend myself from becoming a cliché. I let the influence of the “Museum Gaze” and popular culture control my work to the point where I let it dictate the use of imagery from my own culture. For my Master of Art show, titled “Consflustarmony, the confluence of flustered attempts to mix fine art and ceremony” in the spring of 2014, I created a piece titled “Chief Ego.” “Chief Ego” is a glass war shirt, glass headdress, and cast glass bear claw necklace; 4.5’ tall, 6’ wide and 2’ deep, it is a representation of my ego. In creating this piece I felt I had the power to proclaim myself a chief of the arts since I was soon to be awarded a Master of Arts.  Knowing that proclaiming myself a chief is exactly the opposite of how one becomes a chief, I found humor in my actions. Since there is no way for me in today’s society to earn the regalia I made in glass, I decided to proclaim myself not only a “Chief of the Indian Arts,” but warrior of the arts in both a serious and humorous light. For this show I also created “Ceremony Fire” which was a contemporary piece made of one way glass and neon that actually worked to gather people around it and share stories.

After receiving my Master of Arts from University of Wisconsin Madison in the spring of 2014, I felt so empowered that I took the fear I once had of being a cliché and turned it in to a super power. Like Anakin Skywalker used his hatred of the Dark Side to become a Sith Lord, I have used my hatred and fear of being a cliché to become the most outrageous cliché I can fathom. In my quest I have taken my “Super Ego” to the level of alter ego, “Darth Chief, Mascot Hunter.”  The reverberating effects of genocide are still cursing Indians. While I am aware that there are many serious issues to combat, equality and respect for Indians will never be attained until we are recognized as living people in today’s society, and not relics in the same category as pillaging Vikings and pirate raiders.

The use of my alter ego “Darth Chief” is in the vein of “Indian humor;” for increased understanding of what Indian humor is, refer to the book “Me Funny” by Hayden Taylor, or almost anything by Sherman Alexie or Vine Deloria Jr.  Understanding Indian humor will allow for a greater comprehension of how complicating the use of “Darth Chief” actually is as it relates to Indian humor. If you are not familiar with the government policy of “Kill the Indian Save the Man” you won’t understand my reference to “Kill the Idiot Save the Fan,” so please, before you try to defend the mascots my alter ego defiles, do your homework. Indian Humor is a way for us to all laugh together so we can achieve a cultural balance of equality. It is not a means to pick a fight or perpetuate the stereotypes of Indian culture.

The coming out party for “Darth Chief” was held at the Chazen Museum in Madison, Wisconsin, and his first art battle was in a performance at the Minneapolis American Indian Center at the Indigenous Peoples Day Pow-Wow 2016.


Rory Wakemup: recipient of the 2015 Chazen Museum Prize

Rory Wakemup, Ceremony Fire, 2015. Neon. Courtesy of the artist.


 Wakemup: recipient of the 2015 Chazen Museum Prize
Kill the Idiot Save the Fan

University Of Wisconsin - MadisonApril 25–June 7, 2015

Reception: May 14, 5:30–7pm

Mayer Gallery at the 
Chazen Museum of Art
750 University Ave
Madison, WI 53706

The Department of Art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is pleased to announce Rory Erler Wakemup as the 2015 recipient of the Chazen Museum Prize. His exhibition, Kill the Idiot Save the Fan, will run from April 25 through June 7 in the Mayer Gallery at the Chazen Museum of Art. Rory Erler Wakemup received his BFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts in 2010 and is an Anishinabe Indian enrolled in the Boise Forte Band of the Minnesota Chippewa.

Instituted in 2012, to be given annually for five years, the Chazen Museum Prize recognizes the creative excellence of an outstanding third-year Master of Fine Arts candidate in the Department of Art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This years recipient was selected by Chicago-based writer and critic Lori Waxman. Past jurors for this prize have included Michelle Grabner, Bartholomew Ryan and Stuart Horodner.

The Chazen Museum of Art Council and the Wisconsin Arts Board have provided generous support for this exhibition with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.

“Good art is not universal. Bruce Willis is universal.”
–Sherman Alexie

The unbearable truth of this quip by the Native American writer Sherman Alexie gets its comeuppance every time artist Rory Erler Wakemup dresses as Darth Chief, his alter ego. A fetishistic hybrid of Star Wars and American Indian culture, Darth Chief wears a latex catsuit and sheathes himself from head to toe in cast-aluminum armor laboriously embellished with glass quillwork and glass feathers. He hunts Indian mascots, the kind that fancy dance in sports arenas, and when he finds them he publicly defiles them in retribution for one hundred years of dehumanization in the name of entertainment. He is a Plains warrior for today.

Kill the Idiot Save the Fan is his coming out party. Certainly he deserves one, as does every Native American Indian still alive today, after five hundred years of genocide at the hands of the white man and his government. Wakemup serves as party planner, as well as main performer, historian, sculptor, comedian, costume designer, storyteller, prop maker, DJ and spiritual advisor. He built the neon ceremonial fires, inflated the burial mounds, hung the disco sun, lit up the chief’s headdress and re-appropriated the peace pipe.

If this seems like more craft, more cliché and more popular culture than a museum gallery can handle, it may well be. On one level it’s all a great big send-up—of art school graduate programs, of the Santa Fe art scene, of Hollywood and of the sports-industrial complex. On another it’s deadly serious. The University of Wisconsin-Madison is built on desecrated burial mounds. The Peace Pipe in its archives was used in graduation ceremonies then stored incorrectly, trapping spirits inside. Chief Illiniwek, the mascot of the University of Illinois, was retired in 2007 but continues to appear in unofficial performances, in the halftime chants of sports fans, and on their jerseys.

Indian humorists like Sherman Alexie and the late Vine Deloria recognized the power of irony and satire for surviving desperate situations—jokes about Custer and the Bureau of Indian Affairs have gone a long way, although ineluctably they can’t ever go all the way. That’s why it’s called a desperate situation.

Inspired by his own experience in Sun Dance ceremonies, where glosses on the Force helped ease grueling coming-of-age rituals, Wakemup is betting that his Star Wars mash-up, among other Old Indian Tricks, will keep Native American customs alive in the present. Any and all fundamentalists—of contemporary art, of Indigenous traditions, of football culture—will be offended, because they can’t take a joke, and because conservatives prefer conservation to innovation, and definitely to revolution. And revolution—of the spirit and of art—is ultimately what Darth Chief and Rory Erler Wakemup are both after. May the Force be with them.
–Lori Waxman



Rory Wakemup: recipient of the 2015 Chazen Museum Prize