The thunderbird is a character in stories told by Native Americans for centuries, and artistically speaking it's one of the most widespread symbols in Native culture, a component of the iconography of numerous Indian tribes. According to Complex.com, the jackets were made by Schott and the thunderbird design was created by Wes Lang, an artist whose work mashes up images from a familiar set of sources, including tattoo culture, pinup art, and Grateful Dead aesthetics. And yes, American Indians are among Lang's obsessions--merchandise he designed for Kanye's "Yeezus" tour included t-shirts featuring a skeleton wearing a feather headdress.
Lang's works on paper are typically a mixture of painting and drawing, and sometimes have elements of collage. Here's a typical example, "The Pagent" (from weslang.blogspot.com), which features tipis, a tomahawk, and the lightning bolt (also a feature of the thunderbird design) in addition to portraits of Indians and an Indian skeleton.
The jackets seem like innocent examples of appropriation until you look at designer Lang's artwork (below). Dani Miller spells out the problems here:
Kimye Appropriation Representative of U.S. Pop Culture’s Obsession with Native American Extinction
By Danielle Miller
“Kill the Indian save the man” along with the previous quotation were both sentiments upheld by Richard Pratt, the man who opened Carlisle boarding school in 1879 and implemented assimilation of Native Americans.
I questioned how aware of this history Kanye was with the Yeezus shirt picture which included the caption “God Wants you” under a Native corpse. I fail to see how anyone can interpret this depiction or any other works by Wes Lang of as acts of “good intentions.” Pratt was good intentioned in his relations with Natives so that proves just how lethal “good intentioned” romanticism can be.
While many claim our nation has come far from this horrible period in history the obsession to erase Native people continues.
And what is up with Kanye’s choice to uphold racism by Wes Lang, who has not only created artwork offensive to Natives, but has also used blackface?
In one interview Lang revealed his reasoning behind the images along with his privileged sense of entitlement:
“I like to take American history and then completely ignore it. I come at it visually, taking images and telling my own story. I did a bunch of blackface stuff a couple of years ago. That was a little touchy. I wasn’t doing it to piss people off. I was doing a work about Abraham Lincoln, and I came across these images of little mammies. The images were striking and simple, and I was attracted to them.” DC: So you’re attracted to loaded imagery? WL: I’m covered in it, personally. [indicates his tattoos of women, skulls, crosses, and Indians] I’ve always been a collector of weird imagery, even when I was little.” DC: Do you think you’re challenging the audience when you draw a figure in blackface? Do you trust that they’ll know where you’re coming from? WL: I’m taking it out of its context and putting it into my context and hoping that people can understand that I’m not glorifying this stuff.”
While Lang recognizes that he is placing it in his “own context” he is completely disregarding the fact that it is not his place to appropriate racist images or to “reframe” them; by doing so he trivializing racism and white washing history. Just the concept of reframing racism from colonial white lens is problematic in itself.
The way Lang describes “Indians” as part of the imagery he listed as “weird” shows his complete disconnect with Native people. Categorizing Natives with skulls crosses and weird imagery is just as bad as the way people categorize Natives with other fictional groups to justify their stereotypes.
Even if Lang is commenting on the mainstream view of Indians, he's doing it poorly. His headdresses and teepees reinforce the ignorant beliefs held by most people. They're akin to posting pics of Indians mascots and saying, "Look!" As if that alone would tell us something.
I'm not seeing much difference between the work of Lang and any ignorant stereotyper. As I always say, if you can't tell the difference, there is no difference. Lang's depictions of dead Indians, "little mammies," or whatever are problematical at best and racist at worst.
That Kanye continues to use this problematical artist's work suggests what he thinks about Indians. If you endorse someone with an ignorant view of Indians, what does that make you? An ignoramus also?
For more on the subject, see Kanye's T-Shirts Feature Indian Skulls.