Anna Tsouhlarakis uses humor to investigate Native American identity

“Indian humor” is a colloquial term for Native American jokes about specific tribes, families, and sometimes even a certain person. In her Creative Capital project Indigenous Absurdities, Anna Tsouhlarakis (2021 Creative Capital Grantee) investigates the layers within a joke, and how an anecdote can reflect the identity of an individual or group of people. Through collecting Indigenous jokes and stories, Tsouhlarakis investigates ways of reforming understanding of Native American identity and expression. Combining multi-channel video, collage, and Native American oral traditions, Indigenous Absurdities gives context to present moments of hilarity that highlight the complexity of Native individuals.

Creative Capital is proud to have funded this incredible project. Catch Anna Tsouhlarakis’ Indigenous Absurdities at MCA Denver until September 10, 2023. More information here.

Read Tsouhlarakis’ Creative Capital Artist Diary to learn about her investment in humor and storytelling in the creation of her Creative Capital project.

From top left clockwise: Initial sketches of sculptures for Indigenous Absurdities, 2023. The Native Guide Project: STL, 2023. The Native Guide Project, 2019-Present. Courtesy of the artist.

Recent works of mine have focused on large format text installations in and around museums and throughout urban areas. I have never considered myself a writer, but the use of text has become an important part of my practice. In Indigenous Absurdities, the text was the starting point of each piece. I came up with the titles before conceiving the materials or forms that the works would take.

Six books that inspire Anna Tsouhlarakis. From top left clockwise: Custer Died for Your Sins, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Einstein’s Dreams, Love Medicine, Federal Indian Law, and The Odyssey.

My work has been continually influenced by diverse subject matters. When thinking about how I ended up at this point, I can easily draw direct lines back to these six books that I read when I was much younger. They are touchstones for my way of thinking and being.

Collage of inspirations throughout the creative process. Courtesy of the artist.

I have always been drawn to humor. I love watching stand up and seeing how comedians weave their stories to offer insight, opinion, and an intellectual breakdown of important issues. The brilliance of the shell game they play on stage draws the audience in and delights us when we see their connections and they drop their final zinger. With family on the Rez, in a frat basement during college, or sitting around a bonfire in high school, it was the same. There was always that talented Native storyteller that could weave sadness, truth, and humor into one story that would make us laugh so hard we cried. The disparity of the elements in those stories helped me make sense of my life as a Native, Greek, raised-by-a-single-father, outspoken woman. It was what made me realize I had something to say. It was what compelled me to make art.

My two daughters getting their arms cast. My son inspecting my installation titled Her First Story: Shadows and Bones, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.

As an artist, I have never had a solitary nature. I have always thrived being part of various communities and bringing people into my practice. Wherever I have worked, it has been a natural step to include people in the ideation and creation of work. I have three young children and they have been involved since they were newborns–being on site for outdoor installations, research trips, and openings. Now that they are a little older, they are eager to be in the studio as well.

Images from the studio. Courtesy of the artist.

The past year has been my busiest year to date. Due to the pace of making new work, I had to rethink my usual way of making and I knew I needed help in the studio. With the financial help of the Creative Capital grant, I was able to hire studio assistants. Their dedication, problem-solving skills, and creativity have been a godsend. It’s also been so fun having a packed studio full of energy and laughter.

SHE MUST BE A MATRIARCH, 2023. Installation view. Fiberglass horse, paint, adhesive, resin, plaster, plastic, wood, foam, metal, IKEA remnants, leather, prophylactics, found objects. Photo courtesy of the artist.

From left to right: HER BRAIDS ARE ALWAYS TOO LOOSE, 2023. Mixed media on wood panel. SHE THINKS SHE’S TOO GOOD, 2023. Keg, books, foam, wood, tobacco lids, mesh, metal, resin, adhesive, chattering teeth, leather, plaster, IKEA remnants, wood, paint, plastic, found objects. HER FRYBREAD ISN’T THAT GOOD, 2023. Mixed media on wood panel. Photos by Wes Magyar.

The financial support of the Creative Capital award has given me the opportunity to not only dream big but create big. In the past I have been limited by money, space, and studio help but the award has allowed me to solely focus on creative production. The result is a body of work that has pushed me to new artistic levels and an exhibition of which I am extremely proud.

SHE COULD BE DEER WOMAN, 2023. Plaster, paint, resin, adhesive, leather, screws, IKEA remnants, artificial sinew, wood, metal, faux elk antlers, basketball rim, saw blade, vampire teeth. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Wes Magyar.

SHE’S ALL SOMEHOW, 2023. 4-channel digital video, 5:00 minutes. Photo courtesy of artist.

“For Indigenous Absurdities, Tsouhlarakis foregrounds “Indian humor,” an Indigenous, colloquial phrase for Native American jokes dealing with specific tribes, families, and, occasionally, specific people, as the thematic base for her new sculptures, video, and mixed media works. Sarcasm, wit, and humor have been an undercurrent of Tsouhlarakis’ practice for over 20 years, adding a sense of levity to the pressing topics she takes on. From meme-like text works that playfully examine Indigenous rights and histories in the United States, to sculptures using reconfigured Ikea furniture remnants to address decolonization efforts, Tsouhlarakis imbues her own personal sense of humor into her works while reflecting on the complexities of the contemporary Native experience. 

The body of work presented in this exhibition centers on Indigenous humor and its role in reifying communities and identities. Whether situated in history or the present day, jokes are often rooted in truth. Amusing, illogical, and sometimes ridiculous, they reframe our understanding of the world around us. Employing snarky and sarcastic phrases with titles like SHE’S TOO REZ FOR YOU BRO and HER BEADWORK ISN’T VINTAGE, IT’S JUST OLD, Tsouhlarakis pairs these one-liners with materially and symbolically layered works that attempt to visualize the spirit of each. Drawing from crowdsourced research from friends, family, and a broad network of Native communities across the US, Tsouhlarakis collected Indigenous jokes, stories, and teasing phrases, deconstructing only to reassemble them as abstract drawings, video, and sculptures. Bringing viewers “in on the joke”— or inviting other Indigenous people to enjoy the humor present in diverse Native communities, as they experience the exhibition, Tsouhlarakis’s new works offer new connections to the rich lexicon of Indigenous humor, while highlighting a polyphonic understanding of Native American identity and expression.” – Leilani Lynch, Associate Curator

Installation view of Indigenous Absurdities. Photo by Wes Magyar.

Indigenous Absurdities opened concurrently with Tomashi Jackson’s exhibition Across the Universe at MCA Denver. From left to right: Leilani Lynch, curator of Indigenous Absurdities; Anna Tsouhlarakis; Tomashi Jackson; Miranda Lash, curator of Across the Universe. Photo courtesy of artist.

Catch Anna Tsouhlarakis’ Indigenous Absurdities at MCA Denver until September 10, 2023. More information here.

Watch Anna’s Artist Talk at MCA Denver below: