Ghost Dance of the Great Mystery
Bockley Gallery is pleased to open Ghost Dance of the Great Mystery by Frank Big Bear (White Earth Ojibwe). In recent and new works of vibrant color-pencil drawings on black board, Big Bear’s hypnotic lines and planar registers conjure ancestors, the spirit world, lands earthly and astral, and other-than-human kinships.
Frank Big Bear is known for his bright, all-over compositions that fuse Western Modernism, Ojibwe, and broader Native aesthetic and conceptual traditions. Consistently drawing on what he knows, Big Bear’s converging lines have been tied to the urban cartography of sprawling freeways and tightly gridded or meandering neighborhoods that he drove as a taxi driver for thirty years. Fully in-filled with brilliant color and pattern makes for interwoven subject matter inspired by the stories, characteristics and faces of his family members, forested homelands, popular culture, politics, dreams and spirit worlds, and especially in this exhibition, a reverence for the unknown.
In Ghost Dance of the Great Mystery—the first exhibition to focus solely on Big Bear’s drawings on black board—we encounter a newfound expanse in composition and a subdued chromatic intensity, both inspired from his leaving bare the inherent density of the black surface, as was hinted in his 2008 portrait, Virgin of Fire. Prominent in this series is the artist’s ongoing homage to his teacher, George Morrison (Ojibwe, 1919–2000), whose signature horizon lines Big Bear incorporates multiple times on each board to create stratifications through which several temporal and differential realms can coexist. The nine portraits in this exhibition center powerfully adorned female and hybrid figures who look directly at the viewer. Anishanaabe Maiden (2021) seems gifted and protected with an intricate Ojibwe floral breastplate, while Anishanaabe with Sun Dogs (2021) dons a radiant third eye in the form of the atom molecule symbol within her fur hat or headdress. While the figures overlap the horizon lines, they are surrounded by dynamic environmental, celestial, temporal, and material relations. Of his decades-long practice in portraiture, Big Bear has noted that along with their spiritual quality, his portraits can be read as “psychological profiles and hybrids of several people, including the artist.”
This exhibition’s titular work, Ghost Dance of the Great Mystery (2023), is a large-scale drawing whose four horizontal registers are composed of six interconnected panels. The work’s lower register grounds abundant earthly life and ceremony in relation to the upper registers of sky and celestial worlds. In its foreground is a lively gathering of human, animal, and hybrid figures wearing intricately patterned regalia—a density that transitions towards a horizon line into small, spirited, and achromatic pictographic figures. In the second and smallest register, tiny representations of forest and Plains and Anishinaabe seasonal dwellings stand with multilayered mounds below a sky filled with birds and weather patterns. A colorful thunderbird within the central mound looks beyond the next horizon line to the astral sphere of planetary shapes and movements: comets and meteors dash, nebulous clouds of gas loom, galaxies spin. Overlaying the final, multi-lined horizon is a dual, overlapping wave pattern that reads as sonorous—a mysterious notation, a cosmological score—above which the upper register of the drawing is illuminated by fine white-lined, radiant stars.
Without being explicit, Big Bear imagines the great interconnectivity of a prophecy. The Ghost Dance ceremony was initiated in the late 1800s by the Northern Paiute prophet Wovoka in response to and as a deterrent to prevent colonial incursions onto Native land and to revive traditional lifeways across Turtle Island for all Native people. While the US military violently retaliated in response to the Ghost Dance, most infamously at Wounded Knee, the movement and the prophecy ignited fierce and inextinguishable embers of hope across Turtle Island.