Whether it be in the realm of fine arts, public speaking or education, the name of Louie Gong resonates widely. Raised in the Nooksack tribal community in the Pacific Northwest, the versatility found in Gong’s creative style emulates his highly mixed heritage of Nooksack, Chinese, French and Scottish.
With a unique and progressive aesthetic, he first drew attention for his memorable designing of custom shoes, leading to the award-winning short documentary, Unreserved: The Work of Louie Gong, that featured his work in 2009.
Since then, Gong’s reputation has risen steadily, eventually leading to the launch of his Eighth Generation store in Pike Place Market, a bustling shopping centre in Seattle. In 2014, Gong launched The Inspire Natives Project, an initiative that engages Native American artists by offering entrepreneurial opportunity, under the Eighth Generation brand.
We spoke with Gong to discuss the success of his Eighth Generation store, the community hub that the shop has quickly become, and the movement that inevitably sparked once their doors opened in Pike Place Market.
Through Eighth Generation and The Inspired Natives Project, you enable Native American art entrepreneurs to gain recognition for their creative expression and designs. Have you noticed a change in the Seattle community towards Native American culture?
We have visitors to our store that have heard a radio piece or seen a print article where the tagline ‘Inspired Natives’ has been used, and they come in repeating it. Some people raise their fists when they walk in the store, saying ‘I’m here to support “Inspired Natives”.’
People are used to digesting information in quick sound bites and, because we want to reach mainstream consumers, we’ve had to develop our game in that area. We know that a sound bite is not the solution, but it’s a way to get people engaged, to get them into the store, get them on our website where we can complete the narrative about why it’s important to support cultural artists, rather than supporting businesses that just take cultural art from cultural artists.
Why is it important to preserve cultural ownership over Native American art, and what argument would you present to the average person looking for a “Native-inspired” product, as opposed to an “inspired Native” product?
The first argument I would present is the natural environment. Art is like any natural resource. If we allow big companies to keep taking and taking from it without nurturing the environments that are creating it in the first place, eventually we destroy that resource.
Second, cultural art has been a tool for communication. When someone who is not from a community takes design elements from a particular cultural art style, and then re-arranges them so that they look good aesthetically, it’s equivalent to taking a word in English and rearranging the letters so that they look good aesthetically; what you end up with is gibberish, and that contributes to the delusion of the cultural art form as a tool for communicating about our experiences.
It must be frustrating to walk by fast-fashion shops and see “Native” patterns on clothing.
The impact of appropriation is not just hurt feelings; it has real economic consequences as well. Every time you see a fake ‘Native’ pattern on a product at the mall, that represents a missed opportunity for a cultural artist.
If there’s a demand for Native-inspired products, consumers will continue to go to the non-Native company that’s appropriating the art. One important way to ensure that that change happens is for Native-owned companies to step up and start producing the apples to apples alternative to products that feature appropriated cultural art. That way, consumers have an alternative.
We also need to be doing the consumer-education piece effectively. That’s something that Eighth Generation takes on. In doing that and reaching a broader audience, we’re helping to create economic opportunities for other Native artists.
You discovered your love for art as an adult and have a background working as a family therapist. In your experience, which is your preferred form of communication for addressing social issues: verbal discussion or visual arts?
You have to be able to do both. I think that when you’re trying to address an issue, there is no one solution that will work for everybody, and so it’s important to have a broad range of tools in your repertoire. For me, I really like using the combination of art and words to be able to, first, engage people around the issues that I think are important, and second, to lead them down a pathway where they feel ownership over their developing perspective on issues.
My goal is not to be didactic with words or with my art, but more to spark curiosity around the issues that will help them develop their own opinions.
What role do you believe art plays in helping people reconnect with, or further explore, their cultural roots?
I think when people start to explore cultural art, they find out that the cultural art is not just marks made on a paper—they’re systems of communication that have developed over thousands of years. Practicing cultural art and learning about cultural art is a good way to start engaging with cultural values.
For me, exploring cultural art was a way to reinforce my connection to the community and to the collective history that I share with my broader Native community. By incorporating Chinese themes into my art, I’m exercising my mixed heritage in a bold way and challenging the notion that broader society has—that we should fit into a single taxonomy.
What a lot of mixed [heritage] people don’t understand is that connections to the community aren’t something that you’re entitled to by birthright. If you grow up in a context where you don’t have connections to your community, it doesn’t mean that you’ll never have connections to your community, you just have to go and put in the work. That’s something that’s been required of Native people, who have been disenfranchised from their own culture and community in many ways, and that’s something that I’ve certainly done.
Can visual arts contribute to healing and reconciliation between Indigenous people and the groups that initially colonized them?
I think art is an important tool for engaging people around difficult topics because it’s more accessible; however, as artists, I think we need to be careful that art doesn’t become a proxy for progress. It requires additional work beyond creating images that symbolize reconciliation. Art alone is not the solution, and it needs to be one part of a much larger effort.
Whereas in the past, a lot of my work around this issue was motivated or energized by outrage, now I realize that although outrage can be an important part of trying to make a difference, creating a strong Native-owned alternative and then packaging the information in a way that is palpable to mainstream is even more important.
In the past, we were approaching this contest of ideas in a rudimentary way—it was like checkers. Over the years we’ve become more sophisticated, and now we’re playing chess, which is a longer game too. We’re focused on long-term outcomes and not just satiating our need for some sort of retribution.
Sharing the Eighth Generation Message
In Pike Place Market where our store is located, there are 10 million people a year that visit from all over the world. About 1% of the U.S. population are Native, and it’s probably 85% non-Native people visiting our store. People that have not been exposed to Eighth Generation before are attracted to the aesthetic and that gets them into the store; now we have an opportunity to engage them in the message about our business practices, using a soft, strategic touch. Obviously, not everyone connects to the ideas that we are sharing, but I think that the way we start engaging people through the art, vibrant colours and music in our store, and follow that up with a well-rounded narrative about the work that we do, is pretty effective.
We have to choose people that represent the Eighth Generation brand really carefully because we represent more than just an aesthetic or a product with quality—we represent a movement.
What projects are you currently working on and what’s next for Eighth Generation?
We’re looking to launch as a wholesaler sometime in 2017 and we’re also always broadening our range of product offering in our home decor category.
I work seven days a week. I’m having some success right now, but it’s come at quite a cost. I’m 40-years-old and always have been family focused, but I don’t even have kids yet, so that’s one of the most surprising things to me. I’m looking to step back a little from the intense grind of entrepreneurship so that I can make some of the other things that are important to me—just as a human being—happen, including family.
Images provided by Louie Gong and Eighth Generation