‘I’m Not Making Fun of It… Well, Yeah I Am’: Watch Artist John Feodorov Use Humor to Examine How the West Co-Opts Shamanism

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the "Art in the Twenty-First Century" Season 1 episode, "Spirituality." © Art21, Inc. 2001.

For John Feodorov, spirituality is a thorny issue. The California-born artist is of mixed Native American and Euro-American descent, which provides the source material for his work addressing stereotypes of America, consumerism, and identity.

Feodorov’s work highlights the vastly different values held by Western and Native societies—and specifically contrasts the “Disneyfication of nature” that appears across the West with the veneration of the natural world in Native mythologies.

To grapple with these contradictions, Feodorov has created a “hybrid mythology” using kitschy objects, archival imagery, and paintings to visualize the chasm. In an exclusive interview with Art21 featured as part of its flagship Art in the Twenty-First Century series back in 2001, Feodorov describes his upbringing and the culture clash that inspires his work.

Growing up spending summers on the Navajo reservation where his grandparents lived, the artist was introduced to traditional aspects of the culture. His grandmother was known as a hand-trembler, sought out as an oracle figure by those seeking answers; his grandfather was a Yei Bi Chei dancer who performed the ritualistic dance of the gods. Back home, the artist was part of a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The two cultures, he says, are “completely opposed to each other.” His solution: to use humor in his art “to try and make sense of it all.”

The artist’s series “Totem Teddies” juxtaposes the materialism of America with shamanism and ritual by posing stuffed animals with Native American totemic masks. “They’re just examples of the issue of commodifying spirituality,” he says. “I’m not debunking spirituality, I’m not making fun of it… Well, yeah I am,” he adds with a laugh. “It’s only because I think it’s necessary.”

Right now at New York’s CUE Art Foundation, an exhibition spanning the breadth of Feodorov’s career is on view, curated by Ruba Katrib. The works on view further probe ideas of spirituality, religion, and the artist’s personal journey navigating his dual heritage.

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s Art in the Twenty-First Century series, below. The brand new 10th season of the show is available now at Art21.org. “John Feodorov: Assimilations” is on view at CUE Art Foundation through March 31, 2021.

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series like New York Close Up and Extended Play and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org

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