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gathering 0769_Bebonkwe Brown_web.jpg

Bebonkwe Brown

Urban Skins & Ancient Kin

Brooklyn Heights Library 
by Jonathan Goodman, April 25, 2024

Image: gathering 0769, 2023
digital photo-based painting, honey locust tree seeds, acrylic & cotton cord on canvas
67 x 40 inches (All images courtesy of the artist)

Bebonkwe Brown, a Plains Cree/Anishnawbe/Metis artist whose territory is the Edmonton area, has been based in Brooklyn for seventeen years. As a First  Nations artist living in New York / Lenapehoking,  Bebonkwe incorporates Indigenous and urban elements in her work.  

Her show, “Urban Skins and Ancient Kin”, is an exhibition composed of very painterly photographic imagery, reconfigured into photo-based paintings layering street-gathered expressionism and tribal geometries. Visual fragments of street posters, text,  tags, city maintenance, paint drips, weathering, and even  Western landscapes all occur on picture planes.  Some canvases are fronted by physical elements:  seedpods, shards of found plastic, and 3D-printed shells and arrowheads. 

The abstract grounds in gathering 4494 (minowin /  recovery) and gathering 1247 (minowin / recovery) look like action paintings. In the former, the layered elements and broad blue and gray strokes found on a Brooklyn mailbox meet powerfully. In the latter work,  multiple photos of the ‘urban skin’ (the artist’s term)  become a dynamic painting in similar hues. These canvases are adorned with pieces of old records and broken car headlights, respectively. The shape and placement of these materials position them as elements of Indigenous continuation, holding various possible metaphors: the transformation of the cultural car crash and the broken historical record of colonization into tribal iconography. Other works are adorned with locust tree seeds and 3D-printed oyster shells, traditional food sources of the local Lenape and other First Nations.  Oysters also being a keystone species pushed to the brink through exploitative trade histories of NYC.  

In two-dimensional works, Bebonkwe layers visual excerpts of urbanity into traditional Native geometric patterns. The ground of nikihk 4387 (2017-19), a photo of construction hoarding, has the acronym LOL  repeatedly given in pink, referencing both smartphone language and Native embrace of laughter, even in the face of atrocity. Circular cutouts of Asher B Durand’s ‘In the Forest’ adorn its surface like the circles on tipi covers, provocatively reconfiguring problematic Western romanticism into Indigenous abstraction.

nikihk 4386, 2017-2019
photo-based digital painting on canvas.
40 x 40 inches

gathering 4220 (call me), 2023
digital photo-based painting & 3D printed arrowheads on canvas.
40 x 40 inches

While the artist makes a nod at the NYC-based abstract expressionist movement, seemingly outside her esthetic background, at base Bebonkwe’s work upholds substantially longer histories of Indigenous abstraction,  advocating for its precursory, highly influential, yet largely omitted relationship to the expressionism,  minimalism, color field and all-over painting of much more recent colonial art histories. In the artist’s hands,  Western technologies and the current visual rawness of  New York are repositioned into works continuing the ancient, unending, spiritually focused, fem-centric abstraction practices of Plains First Nations women.


Bebonkwe collects her digital and organic source materials using traditional gathering practices within urban locations, mirroring those taken up by her ancestors for eons. Her visual and dimensional combinations (expressionistic/geometric, flat/volumetric), and the regular spacing of 3D elements also continue  Plains First Nations' creative customs, disregarding  Western divisions between sculpture and painting. Her collaboration with the city as a living, expressive entity is another embodiment of Indigenous perception.  

The presence of text in the show extends Bebonkwe’s history of wordplay, with words extracted from city surfaces investing the artworks with both multiplicitous, often wryly decolonizing denotative meanings and with their image forms.  

The exhibition works may be experienced through their visual offering alone. Yet, the layered cultural and metaphorical elements also express Indigeneity being lived, artfully, within urbanity. Within the current environmental crisis sits a great need for examples of workable, time-tested relationships with the land: This is one of the numerous qualities that make Bebonkwe’s work deeply relevant today, and why the recent, long overdue gain in recognition of contemporary Indigenous art must be deemed necessary.  

The artist does an excellent job of centering the Indigenous mind and life in her art by dissolving lines between millennia-old practice and a highly current sensibility.  Her combinations of physical and digital rendering, and land-gathered and recycled refuse materials lyrically advocate for a continuous, unromanticized Indigenous art-making spanning the past, present, and future. We must hope that Bebonkwe, a mature artist, ultimately gains much-warranted recognition for her substantial contribution to Native art practices over the last 37 years.  Given the dismal history of Native peoples’ treatment, her considerable achievement must be understood, both in the presentation of her sensibility and as an inseparable endeavor to keep her culture alive. Consequently, Bebonkwe’s show is wonderful in this deft, innovative merging of public and private energies.

Urban Skins & Ancient Kin, December 11, 2023 – May 18, 2024
Brooklyn Heights Library, 286 Cadman Plaza W, Brooklyn, NY 11201

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