“Tonto’s Revenge Dance Party” by Tom Huff
A number of exhibitions at Santa Fe’s Museum of Contemporary Native Arts are about to close on July 31st. I’ve seen images of Tom Huff’s piece elsewhere on the web, but took a short video showing the work from all sides while the turntable is in motion. Perhaps this documentation would be useful to a scholar or student interested in the work who did not get to visit the museum in person.
Tom Huff, who is Seneca, created this artwork for the exhibition Under the Influence – Iroquois Artists at IAIA (1962-2012). IAIA is the acronym for a college in Santa Fe: Institute for American Indian Art. IAIA began as a two-year college in 1962 and celebrates its 50th Anniversary this year. It has changed a great deal over the years, including growing from a two-year to a four-year college and expanding its campus, acquiring and renovating an historic building into a museum, and building new, state-of-the-art collection storage facilities for its museum, MoCNA.
The exhibition Under the Influence is part of museum programming this year that brings to light some of IAIAs history through the use of artworks in their collection and artworks solicited from former students. Once the current exhibitions come down, 50/50: Fifty Artists, Fifty Years goes up just in time for the 2012 Indian Art Market, on August 17th.
There is a strong sense of very positive regionalism associated with IAIA and its museum. Santa Fe’s art market in general has a strong sense of regionalism. Strong artistic and artisanal practices from the state’s pueblos help maintain that sense of regional identity. The exhibition Under the Influence – Iroquois Artists at IAIA (1962-2012) foregrounds the college’s role as an educational center responsible for bringing together Native American (and First Nations) students from a wide variety tribes and cultural traditions into a shared location. Tom Huff’s turn-table based artwork, titled Tonto’s Revenge Dance Party, has stuck in my mind since seeing the exhibition, not just because it has a central location at the entrance to the exhibition space, but because it has a strong narrative component in addition its moving parts. The fictional sidekick “Tonto” is currently at the center of debates around the representation of Native peoples through television and movies. As in television and film, the Lone Ranger is the center of the universe. While other parts are in motion and have context, Huff’s Lone Ranger stands immobile – no “ranging” involved. Tonto is represented by a plastic toy Indian riding a skateboard around the perimeter of the record player’s turntable. The title makes Tonto the center of the action, claiming both revenge (very serious) and dance party. The dance party may actually be equally serious. Reading the text written over the case for the record player reveals a seriousness to the party – putting the “party” into context with the history of IAIA and the history of Native American art. Huff learned stone carving while at IAIA and continues to work with stone as well as mixed media. The text reads in part,
“IT WAS THE YEAR I GOT STONED WITH ALLAN HOUSER AND DOUG HYDE. I SPENT THE SPRING SEMESTER WATCHING MR HOUSER AND DOUG CREATE SCULPTURE. I ADMIRED THE ZEN NATURE OF HOUSER AND THE ROCK AND ROLL WORK ETHIC OF HYDE. ALLAN SUGGESTED THAT I SHOULD CARVE STONE. DOUG ALWAYS HAD COLD BEER. I’M STILL CARVING BECAUSE OF THEM, AND SOMETHINGS GOTTA WASH THE STONEDUST DOWN… I WAS DISCOVERING THE DIVERSITY OF INDIAN NATIONS AND INDIVIDUALS AND HOW WE ARE DISTINCT AND SIMILAR. LIVING IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY AND CREATING ART THAT CONNECTS US TO OUR CREATION. ENLIGHTENMENT. LIGHT DARK REZ CITY NORTH SOUTH EAST WEST – WE ALL GOT ALONG EXCEPT WHEN THE ZUNIS WERE LOOKING FOR THE NAVAJOS ON FRIDAY NIGHTS AT THE CANTEEN TO GIVE THEM COWBOY BOOTS.”
Another section includes a photograph of Allan Houser with the caption “THE GODFATHER OF CONTEMPORARY NATIVE AMERICAN SCULPTURE.”
Tom Huff attended IAIA in 1979 and then earned a BFA from Rhode Island School of Design in 1984. He’s been involved with Atlatl, exhibited his stonework internationally, and curated the exhibition Haudenosaunee Elements at the Everson Museum in Syracuse, NY. Huff was Artist-In-Residence at SUNY Empire State College in 2011.
Tom Huff was only at IAIA for one year, but that year clearly had a lasting impact. If you have the chance to visit MoCNA before Under the Influence closes on July 31st, I highly recommend it. If you can visit the museum again during SWAIA’s 91st Indian Art Market in August, even better! Tom Huff’s Tonto’s Revenge Dance Party is definitely a work worth hunting for, as are many others in the exhibition.
 A major resource for the history of IAIA is Joy L. Gritton’s book, The Institute of American Indian Arts: Modernism and U.S. Indian Policy, published in 2000 by University of New Mexico Press. The notes and bibliography are extensive and useful, although the book only covers the inception of the school through 1968. An accounting of the college’s history and analysis of its role in art and education deserves greater attention and scholarship than it has yet received.
 The blog Native Appropriations has a number of postings on the subject of Tonto. http://nativeappropriations.blogspot.com/2012/03/why-tonto-matters.html from March 2012 contains links to a number of other articles/blogs related to the subject.