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American Indian artist Brian Larney uses a mix of art, activism to chronicle Indigenous history

Headshot of a man with buzz sides haircut wears black rimmed glasses and yellow and red circle dangled earring in right ear.
Kaysie Ellingson and Jaciel Maldonado
Brian Larney, an American Indian artist and Dallas native, requested an entire media wall when asked to provide art for AT&T Discovery District during Native American Heritage month.

Larney, a Choctaw of Oklahoma and a Seminole Nation citizen, explores in his work the intersection of racial identity, cultural struggles, and the history of his native nations.

Brian Larney is an AI.tivist or American Indian artist. He is also an Artivist where he performs Artivism, a concept that includes art as a form of activism.

Larney uses his unique artistry to tell the stories of American Indian peoples and to advocate for Indigenous and land rights. His art reflects his tribal heritage and cultural traditions. Larney seeks to raise awareness about the experiences and struggles of Indigenous people and to promote social justice.

"My work is more through the cultural wealth lens. And from my perspective is that it's always cultural preservation. It's always heirlooms, it's always historical facts. It's always tied in with historical threads through genocide. But it's always made sure that we have our identity that I can respect and give thank you to our ancestors, but also give light to our future."

Larney often incorporates traditional motifs and symbols, as well as contemporary themes related to Indigenous issues using a variety of media to create works that are visually striking and thought-provoking.

His art often addresses themes of cultural resilience and resistance, as well as the impact of colonialism and environmental degradation on the Native communities of Texas and throughout the South.

When reflecting on his background as a Dallas born American Indian, in what he calls "concrete jungles," he said. "You have to look at what the city of Dallas hasn't done, what is your responsibility as an American Indian and you need to use your tools as an artist but also develop yourself as an activist."

In addition to creating art, Larney is also involved in community organizing, working to promote the rights and well-being of Indigenous peoples and their representation.

Larney explains that artists just want to paint for the sake of expression. "But for us is that you always turn, turn the page and make sure that you become activists, because you wish that a lot of things were ... for diversity, equity, and equality. But it isn't because there's a lot of firsts that are still happening."

Man in camel colored peacoat and Native printed multicolored fleece scarf stands next to seated woman in black jacket.
Kaysie Ellingson
Brian is joined by his mother, Peggy Larney. He is an Artivist where he performs Artivism, a concept that includes art as a form of activism.

He is the chairman for the American Indian Heritage Day in Texas which promotes recognition of the historic, cultural, and social contributions that American Indian communities and leaders have made to Texas.

Along with his mother, Peggy Larney, he has made strides in eliminating the usage of American Indians as mascots in Dallas. Together, they were also instrumental in creating Indigenous People's Day in the City of Dallas.

While Larney's work with said organizations has worked to advocate for Indigenous rights and environmental protection, he does not subscribe to "traditional" activism tactics to invoke change.

"I think that's the part where we learned or I've learned how to fight. I don't need a protest, if I'd go talk to in a room and talk that 1% and change [their] perspective."

Larney is also on the chair of I CARE (Indian Citizens Against Racial Exploitation). The organization seeks to eradicate the misrepresentation and perpetuation of negative stereotypes of American Indians.

The Duality of AI — American Indians and Artificial intelligence

The increased use of artificial intelligence in art with platforms such as Dall-E and Lensa has prompted criticism from artists who argue these digital platforms undermine the value of human creativity and artistry.

These technologies, which are often developed and controlled by non-Indigenous people, can amplify biases and stereotypes about American Indians and various Indigenous communities.

Indigenous peoples, like other groups, have long been marginalized and underrepresented in mainstream media and are at risk of being further marginalized and exploited by the increasing reliance on artificial intelligence and online algorithms, linguist and te reo Māori specialist Dr. Hēmi Whaanga explained in an essay.

According to Larney, "All that part is an algorithm that pushes what you want to see or what the perspective of what history is. Is the perception of what you want? Or is the perception of what the algorithm pushed? Or is it perception of what the creators, see you as, not what you are?"

American Indians are often underrepresented in these data sets, and it can lead to inaccurate or incomplete representations of their cultures, languages and traditions.

"Because when you start digging into AI, with American Indians, you may have a Western with the headdress. And if you know your history, there were no headdresses of American Indians in the Southwest," Larney said.

"Are you grabbing AI from Hollywood? Are you grabbing the history books? Are you grabbing from someone's blank space of a blot? They're like, 'oh, let's just throw this in and see what happens.' Because algorithms can be wrong."

Larney's current exhibit is on view through January 8, 2023 at the AT&T Discovery District.

The exhibit also includes an augmented reality experience by Texas artist Eric Wagliardo and First Nations interdisciplinary artist Casey Koyczan.

Brittany Stubblefield-Engram is the Digital Engagement Fellow for Arts Access. She previously served as the Marjorie Welch Fitts Louis Fellow for the KERA newsroom. Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, she received her Bachelors of Applied Arts and Sciences from the University of North Texas at Dallas. She is a Hip-Hop scholar and prior to her trajectory into journalism, Brittany worked in non-profit management.