Louisville artist Donna Charging embeds Native American history, politics in paintings
Donna Charging grew up on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, one of the largest reservations in the country, and makes art that explores the relationship between land and people in Louisville.
In her origami-and-paper piece Indians, tan legs peek out from a white dress made up of phrases from Sherman Alexie’s “The Toughest Indian in the World.” The word “Indian” appears 43 times on that tiny dress.
Charging said the work refers to this state of knowing, waiting and fighting for basic human rights. The piece serves as a reminder of the language used in treaties and how they still impact Native Americans today, she said.
“Essentially, a lot of my work is inspired by my memories of growing up on the reservation,” Charging said. “I feel like a lot of the ways that I live, the ways that I conduct myself are always based on what my parents taught me and it's a completely different worldview.”
The Wind River Reservation is home to the tribe Charging’s mother belonged to, Eastern Shoshone, and also Northern Arapaho. She said the reservation felt disconnected from the real world.
“When I was growing up, I remember I always felt like the outside world was on television. It wasn't really real,” she said. “When I left the reservation, I felt like we're not real to the outsiders, like most people can't conceive of what the reservation is.”
Charging is a master of fine arts student at the University of Louisville. She said some of her art depicts furniture she remembers from the reservation or includes colors she associates with her home.
She wants viewers to take a step back and analyze the “layers” of her work and has moved away from explicitly political topics, she said.
“Over the years, when I presented artwork that was specific to like, talking about the truth, which is Native American history,” Charging said. “People were kind of not, I don't want to say turned off, but like they have this attitude like ‘what do you want me to do about it?”
But politics and history are still embedded in her work. She focuses on the racist legacy of redlining in a recent series.
“I want you as a viewer to come up and see like, ‘Whoa, what am I looking at here?” she said. “And then the more you look, the more you kind of see.”
Charging also holds a real estate license, which she said gives her a unique perspective on the history of racist housing practices in the country.
“The history that we have, the land that we live on, is definitely like it never goes away. People think like, ‘oh, it's a clean slate.” she said. “But underneath it all is that history. In my artwork I deal with not only Native American history, but also the history that everybody else has to deal with.”
Last year, Charging created a painting series titled “Under All is the Land” focused on immigration and belonging in the United States. The title is the first line of the preamble of the National Associations of Realtors Code of Ethics, which she said highlights a contradiction in modern society.
“Most people think of buying a house as like a huge investment but at the end of the day, we're all going to die,” she said. “Where does that house go?”
Charging’s work is currently on display at the University of Louisville’s Hite Art Institute Studio in the Portland neighborhood.