“If you want to know who I am, look at my shoes.” Native artist Jamie Okuma (Luiseño and Shoshone-Bannock) makes that bold statement in a video interview on view in PEM’s current exhibition Native Fashion Now. She’s talking about her intricately beaded stiletto boots, but her words are universal. Our clothes—and especially our shoes—are often outward expressions of value systems and identities. In short: we are what we wear.
Fashion exhibitions tend to be very popular at museums, and for good reason. Clothes are familiar and relatable, which helps visitors to make a connection that goes beyond aesthetic appreciation or historical edification and into something visceral, something personal. Fashion exhibitions feel intimate; after all, we all wear clothing and we all form close, personal attachments to what we wear, consciously or not.
Shoes, even more so, are sites of identity. From the clichéd (“walk a mile in his shoes”) to the tragic (displays of mountains of shoes meant to represent the victims of genocide) to the contemporary (Doris Salcedo’s moving Atrabiliarios, in which worn shoes encased in wall niches and sealed with sheets of animal fiber represent the disappeared women of Colombia), empty shoes recall the people who once wore them, speaking to class, race, gender and many other markers of identity in one fell swoop.
Nowhere is that more true than in Native Fashion Now, where fashion, identity and community converge in a riot of color and texture. Native Fashion Now asserts that fashion can be both a statement of individuality and communal identity, and it is in Louie Gong’s Wolf Chucks that that dual expression is most immediately realized.
Gong drew on his first pair of shoes—a plain pair of Vans skateboard slip-ons—and found an outlet for self-expression. Since then he has made a name for himself decorating over 200 pairs of street sneakers, each a unique work of art. A resident of Seattle, WA, Gong is Nooksack and Squamish. The Wolf Chucks represent a melding of cultures, their patterns inspired both by the colorful graffiti of Seattle’s urban environment and the formline designs of his Coast Salish background.
In part I’m drawn to Gong’s Wolf Chucks because of my own long-standing relationship with Converse All-Stars (the “chucks” in Wolf Chucks comes from “Chuck Taylors,” the common nickname for All-Stars). I got my first Chucks when I was 11 years old, and I’ve owned pair after pair of Converse since. In fact, my current pair crossed the country with me when I moved from Chicago to New England this past summer.
I have countless childhood memories of drawing on my Converse. I wrote little notes about friends (“SR + RF = BF4EVA”), drew cartoon-ish woodland scenes and drafted rainbows across the cap toes. The tongues became detailed landscapes (skyscrapers, seascapes, my childhood home), while the edge of the rubber sole was reserved for plant life (mostly roses, after the English translation of my first name). As a young girl working to form an identity in a complex world, drawing on my shoes was my first attempt at stating publicly who I was and what I valued.
Gong recognizes the significance of drawing on shoes, especially for kids. An entrepreneur and community advocate, he has developed a series of workshops called “Design Yourself” in which he leads students through an exploration of their own intersecting identities, culminating with an opportunity to draw those identities on blank sneakers. Many of the workshops Gong leads are in tribal communities, and there Gong helps young people develop the skills to navigate their native and non-native cultures. Together, they generate visual expressions of identity that include both the personal and the communal.
If, as Jamie Okuma says, shoes are an autobiography of sorts, Louie Gong’s Wolf Chucks are a statement of his own identity as well as an invitation to us all. They ask us to consider the multivalent identities of contemporary Native American artists; they recall how, for a child, drawing on one’s shoes can be a formative act; and they remind us all to think about our own relationships with fashion. Finally, they ask a simple question: how does what we wear express who we are?