By Brad Hagen
Jonathan Thunder, multimedia artist and member of the Red Lake Nation, has described his work as “…a story line that reflects my personal lens as a filter to the social, political, environmental and spiritual climate around me.
Thunder attended the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and has since had his artwork featured in numerous publications, some of which are in permanent museum and university collections. His work stems from surrealism to digital animation, though Thunder would consider himself first and foremost a painter. “I wouldn’t consider myself a cartoonist. I feel like each animation I make is a one-time film that exists on its own terms.” Thunder was also the illustrator for the children’s book Bowwow Powwow by Brenda Child.
His latest project is a mural titled My Grandma and Your Grandma that was commissioned by the University of Minnesota, Duluth and installed alongside various UMD students who volunteered their time. The piece draws directly from Thunder’s life, a notion that he finds crucial in his artwork. “I mainly just pull from my own experience because I don’t like to try to present myself as an expert on any one subject other than my own experience in this world. And sometimes that is my experience as an Ojibwe person. Other times, it’s my experience as somebody who thinks critically about things.”
It seems, then, that in this particular piece, Thunder has combined these two modes of thought to create a reflection on his own experience as well as a consideration of his surroundings.
When speaking to how the idea for the piece came about, Thunder said, “I guess it started with my connection to hip hop culture. I wanted to explore that a little deeper in light of everything that happened in Minnesota this year, you know, around the George Floyd incident, and some of the community actions that happened with the Black and Indigenous community in Minneapolis, which is my hometown, where I grew up.”
Thunder described the process as researching history between black and Indigenous communities and adding some of his own personal narrative.
An excerpt from Thunder’s artist statement regarding the imagery used in the mural says, “In this narrative the grandmother or Nokomis, is the center. A traditional dancer is flanked by members of the Dixie Cups. The band came from New Orleans where the Mardi Gras Indians pay tribute to their Indigenous roots with a parade each year. The Mardi Gras Indians look back to a time when tribes took in runaway slaves and gave them safe refuge. On the far right I have placed reference to a Disney cartoon called Little Hiawatha.
The image contrasts the use of Indigenous imagery for profit vs the use of imagery through real connection. A giant rabbit with the letter 3 on its stomach speaks on the Line 3 conflict that continues in Minnesota, and how police are privately funded to work against community members rather than protect them in this conflict.
My Grandma and Your Grandma went on display at the University of Minnesota’s Tweed Museum of Art in late November.