Acquiring PEOPLE LIKE US with Jaime DeSimone and Dan Crewe

Acquiring PEOPLE LIKE US with Jaime DeSimone and Dan Crewe

Originally printed in the summer 2019 issue of PMA Magazine, Jaime DeSimone, Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, shares her views on the importance of Jeffrey Gibson's PEOPLE LIKE US, and acquiring this work for the PMA collection with support from generous community member Dan Crewe.

Brightly colored and statuesque, PEOPLE LIKE US, the ornate sculpture by artist Jeffrey Gibson, commands our attention—it is thought-provoking, welcoming, meticulous, and theatrical. It recalls the state of Maine’s Indigenous people and their rich histories, and represents the growing diversity of the PMA’s contemporary art collection.

Gibson is a queer Native American man of Mississippi Choctaw and Cherokee descent, who lives in upstate New York. Trained as a painter, he also creates multifaceted sculptures that draw upon his heritage to explore the complexity of identities, specifically those of Native Americans in today’s culture. He first received significant acclaim for his punching-bag series, which became a cathartic way for him to explore his anger around race, class, and entitlement. In this series and other work, he unites Indigenous aesthetics (such as rawhides, geometric patterns found on parfleche containers, beadwork, and powwow regalia) with non-Native influences (including modernist geometric abstraction, dance clubs, pop music, and sports). Over the years, Native craftspeople taught him specific beadwork and drum-making techniques, which he utilizes to this day. By doing so, Gibson builds upon Native American traditions to create his own visual language.

Standing at about five feet tall, PEOPLE LIKE US consists of glass and plastic beads, nylon fringes, copper- and gold-finished jingles (or cones), rawhide, recycled jersey stuffing, a wooden block, and other materials. Its title, which appears on the figure’s shirt, is borrowed from the 1965 print people like us yes by Sister Corita Kent, which he owns and is inspired by. The work's geometric patterns also echo the colors and marks found in paintings by Josef Albers and Frank Stella. However, Gibson uses patterning and text—and sometimes text as patterning—to interweave politics, identity, and contemporary artistic references that nod to the past, pay homage to the present, and look forward to the future.

The energy of dance is also at the heart of Gibson’s practice. This figure possesses an implied movement; it as if the humanoid is about to step off the wooden block or raise its arms to a musical beat, setting the fringes in motion and rattling the metal cones to emit sounds—chhh chhh. The work references Jingle Dress dances, celebratory powwows, and urban dance clubs where the artist found solace in his youth. The Jingle Dress dance originated in Ojibwe country and was first performed by women as a method of healing or a form of prayer within communities. It has since been adopted by individuals from different tribes and danced across the nation.

For Gibson, parallels exist between the powwow and the nightclub, where bodily movements express feelings of transience. But his subjects are not the dresses themselves, the original female performers, or his ancestors. In fact, PEOPLE LIKE US is distinctively androgynous; its facial features are implied by circular beadwork that conceals and transforms its identity. The sculpture indicates all peoples and histories, only to transcend beyond them. In this sculpture, Gibson questions what our collective future will look like and in doing so, charts a new direction in contemporary art.

PEOPLE LIKE US is a promised gift to the PMA from community member Dan Crewe and his family. Crewe, who traveled with the PMA for an 1882 Circle trip to the Art Basel Miami Beach fair in December 2018, had the opportunity to meet Gibson and discuss the work with him.

Crewe recalled being immediately spellbound. “I looked at it. Being a gay man myself, my first reaction was, ‘Oh, people like me.’ I asked Jeffrey what he meant by it eventually. He says it means both things. It means people do like us, but also, people like us.”

Over the years, Crewe’s own awareness of cultural heritage, art, and music of Indigenous people has grown and become a focal point of his family’s foundation. Crewe, Jessica May, and others discussed the impact of Gibson’s sculpture if it were already an object in the PMA’s collection. Later, Crewe and the Bob Crewe Foundation committed to purchase the work as a promised gift to the PMA, where it will be on view beginning June 7 as part of the summer exhibition, Open-Ended: New Acquisitions at the Portland Museum of Art.

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August 29, 2019
Associate Curator of Contemporary Art

Jaime DeSimone is Associate Curator of Contemporary Art. She joins the PMA from the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Jacksonville, where she helped grow the permanent collection and curated the Project Atrium series as well as featured exhibitions, including a 2018 exhibition with deep Maine ties, A Dark Place of Dreams: Louise Nevelson with Chakaia Booker, Lauren Fensterstock, and Kate Gilmore.