Ely painter brings color to Indigenous art gallery

Lowell Wolfe

Entering the Dr. Robert Powless Cultural Center of Downtown Duluth’s AICHO Galleries, viewers come face-to-face with a diverse cast of characters. Bright blue and green hues unite in the portrait of a stark Indigenous man who casts his gaze back upon the viewer in Wild Indian, just one of the many colorful acrylic-on-canvas paintings that comprise the gallery’s newest exhibit – Indigenous: Art by Shaun Chosa.

As viewers move through the room, they interact with Ely-based painter and graphic designer Shaun Chosa’s artistic renditions of Indigenous men, women, children and even mythic beings, such as the water spirit pictured on many Northern pictographs that Chosa invests with his own style in Mishupishu.

“There aren’t that many portraits of Indians,” Chosa said. “If you look up ‘Sitting Bull’ on the internet, for example, there’s only a certain number of photos that you’re going to see. I try to expand that and give it my own creativity.”

Indeed, though some of Chosa’s characters are real people – including his friend’s daughter Geezis Humphrey, water protector Autumn Peltier, and Curley, an Indigenous army scout who survived the Battle of Little Bighorn – every image toys with diverse combinations of colors that one can only find in Chosa’s works.

In Little Bird, for example, a young girl with pink and blue skin takes an inquisitive glance out of the picture, while Star Child – a massive, 60”x70” piece featured as the hallmark of Chosa’s exhibit – portrays a character replete with traditional regalia who stands amidst constellations and a swirling cosmos, elements that gesture to the otherworldly psychedelia of Chosa’s style.

“I really like Star Child.…I tried to give it a New-Age look, and made the portrait look like the guy from KISS,” Chosa said.

The vibrant electricity of Chosa’s works provides a visual spectacle. Simultaneously, deeper themes, inspirations and events undergird the roots of such paintings.

As an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and a fourth-generation Native resident of Ely, Chosa’s Indigenous identity is a large part of his work.

In fact, Indigenous: Art by Shaun Chosa is the artist’s third exhibition themed around Indigeneity, along with Native Son and War Paint, which occurred at the Duluth Art Institute in 2020. Beyond their visual beauty, Chosa’s works appeal to current issues threatening the prosperity of Indigenous peoples in the U.S. and Canada, such as Indigenous femicide.

“When my exhibit started, three women in Duluth went missing. This is not something that’s getting better,” Chosa said. “Almost every day, I see on my computer another Indigenous woman who’s gone missing.”

For instance, She Persisted features a stern Native woman staring dead-ahead, her face marked with the red handprint that signifies solidarity with missing and murdered Indigenous women.

“The red handprint was traditionally a symbol used by warriors to mark acts of battle,” Chosa explained. “The missing and murdered movement uses this symbol to impart the same strength. [She Persisted] is a nod to that.”

By bringing Indigeneity, in both its beauty and pain, to the AICHO Galleries, Chosa hopes to magnify the artistic presence of Native American cultures, in every sense of the word.

The painter’s larger-than-life portraits, which can stand more than five feet in height, impose themselves upon the viewer. With their intense colors, such sizeable works take full command of one’s capacity for attention, placing you into a visual conversation with the figures depicted.

“Working with large canvasses is fun,” Chosa explained. “One can see it from across the street, or across the room, and take something away from it. It doesn’t get more grainy as you get closer, unlike a photo on the internet. Instead, it gets bigger, and even more real.”

Reality is truly on display with Indigenous: Art by Shaun Chosa, as Chosa accurately demonstrates to viewers that Indigenous cultures are just as vibrant, diverse, and grandiose as the paintings through which he expresses them.

Indigenous: Art by Shaun Chosa remains on display at the Dr. Robert Powless Cultural Center until Sept. 16. Free viewings occur every Friday from 4–6 pm.