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JULY/AUG 2023 Issue
1x1 On Wendy Red Star

My Home is Where My Tipi Sits (Rez Cars), 2011

Wendy Red Star, <em>My Home is Where My Tipi Sits (Rez Cars)</em>, 2011. Archival pigment print, 58 1/2 x 72 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Sargent’s Daughters.
Wendy Red Star, My Home is Where My Tipi Sits (Rez Cars), 2011. Archival pigment print, 58 1/2 x 72 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Sargent’s Daughters.

They are, all of them, vehicles of a certain age. Two elder station wagons of differing decades, one with an ample way-back, numerous eighties American sedans (I’m descended from a long line of car freaks, so I can’t help but throw out guesses: among them a Cutlass, Caprice, maybe a Gran Torino or a Cougar or a Grand Marquis). All badass in their heyday. There’s also a slightly more econo species (a Taurus, I think?) plus a fabulous old red truck that motorheads everywhere would kill for. Here, though, the focus isn’t on the make and model, but a greater individuality, one conferred by varied markers: large, spray-painted Xs; T-bone dents; scratches; dings; sagging tires; faded paint; missing hubcaps; missing tires; rusted doors; busted windows; trunk that won’t close; a hood flung eternally open. Scarred, tattooed, age-spotted, worn and torn, Wendy Red Star’s rez cars chill like porch-sitting senior citizens telling war stories and cracking jokes, chewing on weeds.

Red Star photographed these rez cars in their apparently permanent resting places, outside the same sorts of houses she also documents in “My Home is Where My Tipi Sits,” her 2011 series of gridded icons of life on the Apsáalooke (Crow) Reservation. Mimicking Hilla and Bernd Becher’s “typologies” of twentieth century industrial architecture, her full-color renditions of churches, sweat lodges, houses, signs, and cars catalog their intrinsic uniqueness, the impossibility of taxonomic definition—or, to borrow a perfect phrase from the writer Julia Bryan-Wilson in Red Star’s book Delegation, “their idiosyncratic jankiness.” In doing so, the artist who frequently and refreshingly recontextualizes and rewrites colonial archives of Indigenous life, is creating her own archive, as iconic as soup cans and as subversively opposite them. (She has also portrayed rez cars individually in her “Rez Pop” series, shown against fabrics as vividly hued as the bright castoff colors that were used to paint the exteriors of rez houses.)

Yes, you could also read into the battle scars of these cars—the lack of federal funding for tribal roads, the fact that the Crow Reservation is the fifth or sixth largest in the US and the largest in Montana, where rural distances stretch long and winters stretch even longer. But what pulls me to Red Star’s rez cars is how alive and human they feel: how, even in their eternal stasis, you can’t help see them as still somehow in motion. They called to Red Star too: of the three dormant vehicles stashed on her dad’s property that she played in as a child, she says, “I liked the car with the 8-track shaped like a jellybean. Each of us would pile into the cars which were parked in a row and pretend to drive off to faraway places like California, New Mexico, sometimes even outer space.”

I think of a William Gedney photograph of a boy purposefully gripping the steering wheel in a broken-down car, his face dreaming a million miles away from Kentucky. I think of me and one of my childhood best friends, sitting in her driveway in a truck borrowed from a dentist, which for some reason always became our convoy on an imaginative road trip from rural North Carolina to LA, a place we’d never been.

Some rez cars are vessels, Red Star has said, and I think of my grandfather’s 1969 metallic green Chevy truck, and how it filled with personal and oddball storage from the house in the decades after his death—farm tools, a rotary phone, cat food.

Some rez cars are memorials, Red Star has said too—the cars in which their drivers perished, parked outside their family’s homes. I think of the cars that remain in the woods near my relatives’ farm, sleek, shiny muscle in their peak, now quiet as ghosts. They are flowers whose growth is to weather and rust instead, metallic grandpas and grandmas in our midst.


Rebecca Bengal

Rebecca Bengal's collection Strange Hours: Photography, Memory, and the Lives of Artists has just been published by Aperture. Her short fiction appears most recently in Dark Waters, a new monograph by Kristine Potter. Originally from western North Carolina, she lives in Brooklyn.


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