A Portrait of David Bradley

Highlighting The Native Indian Cause With a Sense of Humour

Tonto and the Lone Ranger, 2014, bronze with patina. Photo: Courtesy of the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture
Tonto and the Lone Ranger, 2014, bronze with patina. Photo: Courtesy of the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture

David Bradley’s art tells you stories about his commitment to social and political issues, especially those affecting first nation Americans.

His mother was a Chippewa Indian, but he was fostered by a non-native family. This gave him a dual perspective of American life with natives and non-natives. As a child growing up he was painfully aware of the racism against the American natives.   

As a young adult, he spent two years in the Peace Corps, first of all in the Dominican Republic and then in Guatemala. In 2015 he gave an email interview to Cowboys and Indians magazine. During this interview, he says he loved the experience of being in the Peace Corps, even though it was tough. But, he says it taught him to be independent and resilient. He also learnt to speak Spanish during that time.

When he returned home he ended up at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe. In 1980 he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts.

Controversy and the  Grass Roots Indian Organisation

Not long after this, in the mid-1980s, David Bradley became involved in the controversy surrounding the sale of Indian products. It was a million-dollar business. People were selling native Indian goods claiming to be Indians. But, they weren’t native Indians at all, it was a huge fraud. 

It led David to set up the Grass Roots Indian Organisation. This raised awareness of the exploitation of American Indians. At the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Art and Crafts Fair, 600 native Indian artists pledged their support.

Not everyone agreed with his stance and he became the most blacklisted Indian artist in America. But his efforts weren’t in vain. It brought about a dialogue that resulted in the New Mexico Indian Arts and Crafts Law 1990. There is also a federal version.

Globally recognised artist

Despite the blacklisting, David Bradley has become a globally recognised artist. He has exhibited his art in exhibitions around the world and received many awards. In the Santa Fe Indian Market, he won awards for both painting and sculpture.

Pow Wow Princess, Southwest, 2009. Photo: Courtesy of the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture

Although his underlying message is serious, many of his paintings demonstrate his humour. Take the painting of El Farol, Canyon Road Cantina (a restaurant that is still open today). It features David playing the saxophone, along with Vincent Van Gogh worse for wear at the bar. You can also see Bill and Hilary Clinton enjoying the Jazz music. 

He often includes other famous artists in his paintings. One of his favourites is Santa Fe artist Georgia O’Keefe who is also in the El Farol painting. 

The message through his art

His paintings tell tales about American commercialism and the Indian tourist culture. But his love of native Americans doesn’t stop him from some gentle ridicule. In his painting the Santa Fe Market,  he shows non-natives flocking to spend their cash to buy native Indian goods. 

His work also mixes historic characters with modern personalities and he often includes fictional people and animals from television. Many of his paintings are parodies of famous classics. For example, his painting Pow Wow Princess is a parody of the Mona Lisa. So are the paintings based on Grant Wood’s American Gothic. Instead of two white Americans, he features native Indians.

David Bradley. Photo: ACLU

His sculptures also draw the spotlight to American Indians. They include Moenkopi Maid and, Super Indian. He has also sculptured two of his favourite characters who are often featured in his paintings, yes, Tonto and the Lone Ranger. In 2011 David was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease or ALS.  He hasn’t been seen now for a few years, but you can be sure his art continues to be enjoyed by an appreciative public.

Leave a Reply