"For a subject worked and reworked so often in novels, motion pictures, and television, American Indians remain probably the least understood and most misunderstood Americans of us all."

-John F. Kennedy in
the introduction to The American Heritage Book of Indians

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Oversized Plastic Toy Indians by Yoram Wolberger

The sculpture of San Francisco based visual artist Yoram Wolberger may be bright and colorful but the meaning in each piece is profound and sincere.  He takes the beloved toys of our childhood and subverts their innocence all in the name of making a point.  Here is the artist profile from his website:

"Yoram Wolberger uses childhood toys and everyday domestic items to create his large scale sculptures, foregrounding the latent symbolism and cultural paradigms of these objects that so subtly inform Western culture. By enlarging this ephemera to life size, Wolberger emphasizes the distortions of their original manufacture disallowing any real illusion and conceptually forcing the viewer to reconsider their meanings. When enlarged beyond any possibility of dismissal, we see that toy soldiers create lines between Us and Them, plastic cowboys and Indians marginalize and stereotype the Other, even wedding cake bride and groom figurines dictate our expected gender roles."

And here is what he makes:

Red Indian Chief, 2005
No Reservations: Native American History and Culture in Contemporary Art
The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum
(Source: flickr)

 Red Indian #2 (Bowman), 2005
No Reservations: Native American History and Culture in Contemporary Art
The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum
(Source: flickr)

Red Indian #4 (Spearman)
Brooklyn Museum

And you can never leave the alpha without its omega:

Blue Cowboy #3 (Double Gunslinger)
(Source: tumblr)

These works are a perfect case study in the obsession with everything Native.  The Israeli born artist Yoram Wolberger has taken two of the most potent symbols of Americana, Cowboys and Indians, and revealed them for what they are- rough-edged, bloated, one-dimensional caricatures.

His art is similar to that of Kent Monkman recently profiled on the Beyond Buckskin blog.  They both take symbols of the past- plastic toy Indians and classic western landscape painting- and completely turn them on their heads.  Monkman inserts the sick and silly in his attempt to "queer the frontier" and subvert traditional white dominance.  Wolberger brings the miniature distortions of tiny toy Indians into full scale, making their stereotypical imagery easier to grasp.

Wolberger is someone like myself, a person obsessed with the obsession.  He understands the power and impact these toys had on untold millions of American children. As he puts it so succinctly, "plastic cowboys and Indians marginalize and stereotype the Other."

The question remains: Will people get the message in his work?

Take a look at this photo:

Here is how I would caption it: "Check it out dudes, I'm a cowboy!"

The reason I posted this photo is because I couldn't find one of a gallery visitor next to "Red Indian Chief" with their "how" hand up or their hand covering their mouth (which is very a good thing).

I've been accused before of being too hard on people, claiming that they would never "get" the subtleties in pieces like this or works of satire.  These sculptures once again fall under that broad category of "using stereotypes to debunk/satirize stereotypes," though considering the power of the artist's own statements, he assuredly knows what he's doing.

That being said, the pessimist in me feels that there will still be people who will see these sculptures and have their stereotypes reinforced.  But thankfully the artist's own words give me confidence that anyone who visits these sculptures in a gallery will never look at "Indians" the same way again.

In case you're wondering, Wolberger has not limited himself to just Cowboys and Indians.  Below is another beloved childhood toy re-sized so that the gallery visitors will never see it the same way again:

Title unknown
(Source: artbusiness.com)

Happy Memorial Day!


  1. I wonder if he can make me a giant LEGO man to put in my living room.

  2. Another great posting, Stephen!

  3. Rob-

    I like your point about context. I originally did think how something like this would look in a toy store or even a children's museum. Thankfully, I don't think this artist would ever let that happen!

    When I first saw a photo of the Red Bowman online, I was expecting the worst. Then when I finally found the artist's website, I was pleasantly surprised.

    This might make an interesting compare and contrast study with the Dudesons. Funny how people from outside the U.S. (Finland and Israel) can react so differently to the same popular imagery of Indians.

    What a crazy world we live in!

  4. Great posting. Maybe you can teach this guy a thing or two about his country's history. But, you might need to wait until he is done playing with his toys ..or getting his knowledge from watching 'toy story #3':



  6. check this one:

  7. I love his large scale sculptures. Cowboys and Indians, my favorite childhood toys!