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Anna Tsouhlarakis is a Navajo, Creek and Greek artist who explores themes in contemporary Native American life filtered through a stereotype-busting sense of humor. Over more than two decades, she has worked across sculpture, installation, collage, and performance art, all the while investigating humor as a form of resilience and cultural preservation for Native communities. 

Born in Kansas in 1977, Tsouhlarakis credits her father Naveek as her gateway to art-making. A construction worker who became a full-time jeweler, he learned traditional silversmithing and woodworking techniques during his youth on the Navajo reservation. Through him, Tsouhlarakis was exposed to Native American art markets around the US and spent several summers on the reservation. She remembers him working from the basement of their home during her childhood, bringing back scraps from construction sites that she would fashion into her first sculptures.

Anna Tsouhlarakis: Taking the Absurd Seriously - Features - Independent Art Fair

Anna Tsouhlarakis, SHE'S SO REZ SHE DOESN'T EVEN NEED A SADDLE, 2024, mixed media, 52 x 25 x 27 inches. Courtesy the artist and Tilton Gallery.

“When I started making work, I loved the idea of constructing and problem-solving—and sculpture comes down to problem-solving,” Tsouhlarakis says. “Building three-dimensionally is something that came easily to me. But gradually it became less about materials and more about how I could put the stories and experiences of Native Americans more bluntly and straightforwardly out into the world.”

Tsouhlarakis began experimenting with other mediums during her BA at Dartmouth, the so-called “Native Ivy” which had the highest percentage of Native American students of any Ivy League university the year she joined. Dartmouth, she notes, was originally founded in 1769 as a school for Native Americans but only recommitted to its mission in 1972, when it began actively recruiting Native students. “I wanted to be around other Natives and I feel like what made me successful there was having that support,” she recalls.

Her thesis exhibition featured the performance work Travois (1999) in which she fitted a travois—an A-frame structure used by nomadic tribes to carry loads over land—with backpack straps and walked through the streets of Hanover with it. The piece referenced her own sense of cultural displacement in the still predominantly white college environment as an “urban Native,” a term for someone who was raised outside of the reservation.

She produced her first text-based work at Yale, a cork board with handwritten notes inspired by a conversation she overheard between two elderly Native women at Crow Fair powwow in Montana. “One said, ‘You never come by to see me,’ and the other responded that she didn’t know where she lived,” Tsouhlarakis remembers. “Then, one said that the other didn’t ever call them, and she said: ‘Well, you don’t even have a phone.’ Then they just burst out laughing—like almost falling off the bench.”

Tsouhlarakis sees an interesting juxtaposition in their exchange between the harsh realities of living on the Navajo reservation—where many homes lack electricity and running water, let alone telephone service—and the humor and levity that make it all bearable. “We use humor to get through what we have to endure,” she says.

Anna Tsouhlarakis: Taking the Absurd Seriously - Features - Independent Art Fair

Anna Tsouhlarakis, SHE STILL THINKS HER SHIT SMELLS LIKE SAGE, 2024, mixed media, 11 x 26 x 16 inches. Courtesy the artist and Tilton Gallery.

Since then, Tsouhlarakis’s practice has frequently mined the everyday to express the absurdities and complexities of Native life. For her first public art installation, Stalks of Beans and Other Stories (2006) at Socrates Sculpture Park in New York, she gave 24 Native Americans $24 each to buy whatever they wanted. The sum referenced the pitiable amount Dutch settlers paid the Lenape tribe for the island of Manhattan. 

“Someone gave me piles of books, another gave me gay porn,” Tsouhlarakis says. The objects were incorporated into the work, shown on tiered platforms evoking the Manhattan skyline and Native American ceremonial scaffolds. “The ironic part was that, after around a month, even though it was all bolted down and covered in resin, most of the things had been torn down and stolen. It was the perfect ending to this piece because that’s exactly what it was about.” 

One recent project in which Tsouhlarakis omitted an undertone of humor was Portrait of an Indigenous Womxn [Removed] at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, as part of the exhibition Kinship. The work responds to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls movement, calling attention to the disproportionate number of cold cases involving Native Americans nationwide. Tsouhlarakis staged two hour-long performances in which she placed the missing posters of women around the museum. 

“I knew that there was nothing more important that I could do than place these women there,” she says. “It was crucial to be in conversation with these families and let them know that their loved ones weren’t forgotten—that they were being honored in such a revered place and that their stories were finally being brought to a more public audience.”

Anna Tsouhlarakis: Taking the Absurd Seriously - Features - Independent Art Fair

Anna Tsouhlarakis, YOU KNOW SHE BUYS HER SAGE AT URBAN OUTFITTERS, 2024, paper collage on wood panel, 48 x 72 inches. Courtesy the artist and Tilton Gallery.

For her solo presentation at Independent with Tilton Gallery, Tsouhlarakis has created new works in sculpture and collage that expand on her 2023 exhibition at the MCA Denver, Indigenous Absurdities. Supported by a Creative Capital grant, the show embraced humor’s role in Native communities, melding truth and ridicule into snarky quips based on crowdsourced research from the artist’s own network. 

One example at Independent is the meme-like text collage YOU KNOW SHE BUYS HER SAGE AT URBAN OUTFITTERS, poking fun at Native American tropes in commercial culture. The sculptures rely on the absurdity of their improvised constructions, such as SHE STILL THINKS HER SHIT SMELLS LIKE SAGE, a disembodied hand holding a cascade of white beads on an IKEA pedestal, which contrasts European and Native American aesthetic sensibilities. 

The works stick to a monochromatic palette, giving them a minimalist appearance or even a hint of classical Greco-Roman sculpture. Color would overcomplicate the work, Tsouhlarakis believes, and its absence also makes a political point. “So much of Native politics deals with skin color and the physicality of what it means to be Native,” she says. “Especially because I’m working with body casts sometimes, I don’t want to talk about whether a cast is too dark or too light to represent a Native person. That’s not the discussion I want to have.” 

She adds, “It’s been an interesting thing to go out into the world as a dark-skinned Native. There’s many assumptions that come with that.”

With her multi-layered take on Indigeneity, Tsouhlarakis is among a rising generation of Native artists whose work is cutting through the old assumptions and breaking the so-called “buckskin ceiling” of the mainstream art world. This year alone, she is busy with upcoming projects like a land art commission for the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens and a group show at the Native Arts and Culture Foundation in Portland. 

In 2025, she will take part in a major exhibition at the ICA Boston, co-curated by Jeffrey Gibson, the first Native artist to represent the United States in a solo show at the Venice Biennale. Billed as a celebration of the “increasingly visible and expanding field of Indigenous contemporary art,” the Boston project builds on a landmark book edited by Gibson in 2023. The title says it all: An Indigenous Present




Gabriella Angeleti is an arts and culture writer and editor based between Brooklyn and Rio de Janeiro. Her writing focuses on South American art, Indigenous art, art in the American high desert, archeological and cultural heritage conservation, and the intersection of art and the environment. 

Learn more about Tilton Gallery’s presentation of Anna Tsouhlarakis at Independent 2024.