Keith Secola | by any other name
Written by Miranda K. Metcalf | Published 13 feb 2019
Keith Secola lives in two worlds, well, at least two, and for his two worlds he was given two names, each with its own legacy. His mother is Northern Ute from Utah —the reservation on which he was born in 1988. Keith Secola Jr. was the name given to him at birth, and like most juniors, he was named after his father, a well known, award-winning native musician, an Ojibwa man with the Anishinabe tribe from Bois Forte, Minnesota. When we chat Secola tells me that after years of art practice and a stint as a semi-pro skater, he is just now creeping up the Google search results next to his father. Secola’s second name is Mino Mashkiki Wish Ghan. This is the name Secola was given at the age of seventeen near the north shores of Lake Superior by a medicine woman named Sandra Hunter. Mino means “good”, Mashkiki is “medicine”, and Wish Ghan while English lacks an exact equivalent is approximate to “to be around,” “to see,” or “to know.” Even in his late teens he felt the weight of such a name and knew order to live up to he would need to be strong, work hard, and make sacrifices.
I ended up talking to him for over an hour while he was in the middle of a fellowship at the Kala Art Institute in Berkeley. He has the casual ease of a skateboard kid and a mind like a steel trap. We spoke about his personal history, the history of his family and his tribe, his art practice, and his exhibition on now at Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts. As we did Secola rattled off proper names, dates, and locations with jaw-dropping precision. As someone who regularly forgets her own social security number, I was thoroughly impressed (read: envious). I came to know Secola’s art through Instagram. On the pine|copper|lime page when I’m not plugging articles, podcasts, or events related to this project I repost work from printmakers doing things I find exciting. I came across a post from Kala featuring Secola’s current project and immediately thought, “How come I don’t know about this guy? Wait, how come everyone doesn’t know about this guy?” I reposted images along with a quote from Secola’s website and promptly broken the internet. The post received more likes and comments than anything I’d hitherto shared by far and I reached out to him to ask come on the pod for a chat.
Secola grew up all over the Southwest and Utah, but spent most of his formative years in Phoenix, Arizona. There he lived the life of what he calls of “the urban Indian” where finding connection and community is essential in order to survive and thrive. He found this through skateboarding and the art and music within that subculture. He eventually ended up riding for The Apache Skateboard Team of Arizona based out of the San Carlos Indian Reservation. Skateboarding was his life, and it was all he wanted to do. Although his parents, as parents do, encouraged him to go to college since he had the grades for it and clearly the drive to dedicate himself to his passions.
He was drawn to the art of skateboarding: graffiti, murals, and graphic line work. When he was attending art classes in college this translated into his practice. Noticing the flatness and boldness of his aesthetic, a professor suggested that he try printmaking, and his portfolio earned him a spot at The Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He attributes his time there to developing his sense of art practice and using his identity to question the world around him. After graduation, Secola took four years off between undergrad and graduate school, and lived with his brother in Colorado. During that time he was doing the Indian art markets of the Southwest, but wasn’t satisfied. His art wasn’t conceptually where he wanted it to be and he began looking into graduate schools. The California College of the Arts in San Francisco offered him the Yozo Hamaguchi Print Scholarship and he began his journey there in 2016. At the time of our conversation, the ink was still wet on his MFA and he had jumped immediately from finishing in spring of 2018 to the fellowship at Kala the following summer.
The day we record he was three days out from installing an exhibition at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts titled Postcolonial Revenge —a group exhibition curated by Gilda Posada and Dara Katrina Del Rosario. The curators had the idea for an exhibition around postcolonial studies and the aftermath that it’s had on the identity of indigenous people and other people of colour. They approached Secola about doing large installation pieces for the exhibition. His installation itself is made of two worlds, two sides of Secola’s practice. His screenprints and his wall drawings.
Before leaving for graduate school his mother, the matriarch of his large family, gave him an archive of incredible family photographs from the 1800s to the 1950s. Some of them are formal portraits of young native men and women in traditional clothing sitting still for the camera with the kind of grace that is only possible in early photographs when people had yet to know what they were going to look like after development. Others are more familiar, mid-twentieth-century family snapshots of men in button ups sitting at kitchen tables. Secola screenprints these images large scale on to repurposed, deconstructed book covers. These covers come from “historical” publications with titles such as American Heritage, which have tales of a romanticised and dramatic world of early America. When he first started this practice he didn’t know what it would mean to him. He wasn’t thinking about reclaiming history or recontextualization but rather just following a creative impulse. After he stepped back and looked at the work he realised the power of the images he had created.
He then went looking for book covers which are suggestive of colonial powers and it became a focused critique of text, images, and persuasion throughout history. Beyond the physical act of reclaiming these histories by literally printing over them, the source of the portraits also has its own significance. Many of them were taken by his grandfather, Francis McKinley. McKinley was an instructor at Arizona State University in the 1960s, an advocate for Indian education, a skilled photographer, and someone to whom Secola has felt a deep connection with since he was a child. Making portraits by McKinley are images of native people created by a native person. Thus the warped and agenda-laden history told by the publications is physically and philosophically obscured and overridden by a history from the voice of the subjects.
One particularly wonderful photograph is the one that Secola calls “Indian Fighter.” The image is of Reuben Cesspooch (Secola’s maternal great uncle) standing, gloves on, fists raised, wearing a huge headdress that doesn’t quite even fit in the frame. He looks focused and confident with eyes gazing into the camera lens. Cesspooch was part of a Ute boxing team on the reservation in the 1960s who would compete against each other as well as other tribes, and McKinley had set out to capture the team on film. Coming to understand his grandfather’s passion and skill for photography also helped Secola place himself in the world. “[When I was doing art] I used to wonder, where did this come from?” He says, through his research into the archive of family photographs and his grandfather’s practice he now knows.
The wall drawings Secola created for the exhibition are directly inspired by his time in the world of skateboarding where he was taken with graphic murals. The images are reappropriated, altered and repurposed from the engravings of Theodore de Bry (1528 – 1598). de Bry himself created images based on the water colours of John White found in “A Brief and True Report of the Newfoundland of Virginia” (1588). Drawing on a long tradition of twisting reports and facts about indigenous peoples in order increase sales, de Bry altered the native bodies for a European audience giving them Michangeloeque physiques and controposto stances. The images depicted the native people of the Americas engaging in heinous acts of wild violence, thereby satisfying the public’s need to see the monsters they’d been promised surely lived in the unknown lands. de Bry’s images were a success, and through the new magic of the printing press were quickly distributed around Europe. Inspired by Kara Walker’s alternate and savage fantasy world, Secola enlarged the figures from the these engravings to life size and added tattoos and different regalia as a form of reclaiming, not just reproducing. Putting the wall drawing side-by-side with his grandfather’s photographs creates a dichotomy of representation between the real and the fake — the world he is from and the world he was born into. The photographs overlap and cover up the portions of the wall murals rewriting the visual history.
The art that Secola is making isn’t easy, he says there are hard moments in the studio where he has trouble understanding why he’s printing these things. To take on a project like this is to engage every day with a real and recent history of exploitation and degradation of his family. Secola takes care of himself and is quick to say he has a good family that is there for him as well a support system within his tribe. He brings a much needed narrative into the world even if he has to go through difficult moments to bring it to life. He is not afraid of the work and sacrifices needed to do so and is undoubtedly living up to all of his names.
Suffice to say, anyone who has any chance to see these works in person should do it now. The exhibition is at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts in the Mission District off the 24th Street BART and runs through February 22nd.