Jeff Edwards, originally from Vian, OK, has served the Cherokee Nation for over 11 years. As a member of the tribe, his main artistic focus is the revitalization of the Cherokee language. As part of the tribe’s Cherokee Language Department, he provides technological support to language programs and focuses on the effort to create more Cherokee speakers.
His works that are currently on view in A Living Language: Cherokee Syllabary and Contemporary Art place Cherokee culture at the center of iconic imagery. Through digital art, he incorporates the Cherokee language into almost everything he creates. Tsalagiopoly utilizes the easily recognizable features of a Monopoly board, while conjoining those features with Cherokee imagery and syllabary. Cherokee on the Brain is a x-ray of a human skull, inside of which is a brain decorated with the syllabary. Speaking with our Ancestors is Edwards’s lighthearted recreation of the Ouija board; it would theoretically allow for communication with Cherokee spirits, as the board is made up of Cherokee syllabary and features Sequoyah at the center. Sequoyah, the creator of the Cherokee syllabary, is one of Edwards’s favorite subjects to depict. Edwards’s Warhol (not on view in this exhibition) also depicts Sequoyah, and replicates Andy Warhol’s famous Pop art style. Aside from soup cans and Marilyn Monroe, Warhol had a controversial history of depicting Native peoples in his art. The image of Indigenous peoples has historically been constructed and exploited by non-Natives, which is definitely something to keep in mind when viewing Jeff Edwards’s work, coming from his lived experience as Cherokee, and indigenous art in general. Indigenous culture is so often commodified, misrepresented, and appropriated—highlighting how the reclamation of language, image, and culture is as important as ever.
The Cherokee language is spoken fluently by around 2,000 people today. Syllabary, the written form, is made up of 85 distinct characters that embody the full range of sounds used in the language. Cherokee has been described as an endangered language, which inspires Edwards to include the syllabary in his work. The Cherokee peoples’ continued use of the syllabary is a form of cultural expression, and is the main focus of A Living Language: Cherokee Syllabary and Contemporary Art.
—Astrid Cope, fall 2021 communications – multimedia storytelling intern