Jonathan Thunder

Red Lake Ojibwe

About the Artist

Jonathan Thunder infuses his personal lens with real-time, world experiences using a wide range of mediums. He is known for his surrealistic paintings, digitally animated films, and multimedia installations, such as murals, sculpture, and video walls, through which he addresses the subject matter of personal experience and social commentary. Jonathan is an enrolled member of the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe, and makes his home and studio in Duluth, Minnesota. He attended the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and studied visual effects and motion graphics at the Art Institute International in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His work has been featured in many states, and in regional and national exhibitions, as well as in local and international publications. Jonathan is the recipient of a 2020-21 Pollock−Krasner Foundation Grant for his risk-taking in painting. Since his first solo exhibit in 2004, Jonathan has won several awards for his short films in national and international competitions. He is also a 2022 McKnight Artist Fellow.

About the Art

The Doctrine of Rediscovery

“This hand-stretched canvas was painted in honor of the Indigenous movements bringing tribal communities together and re-introducing food systems, culture, and spirituality. It is about resilience and tribal sovereignty. An Indigenous baby is rising from the water, wearing a space helmet for protection. It symbolizes a baby coming into the world where the child can choose the teachings of elders and family and not be forced into government-based ideals. Children have more resources about cultural identity than my generation. On the left is an elder offering a marker to find the way home. On the right are government-issued rations and a crumbling monument. A rag doll resembling the former POTUS peers from the protection of the large, stone statue. A black lake represents oil and water.” —Jonathan Thunder

Thunder gallery image

Profile Q&A

What does the idea of “justice for Native communities” mean to you?

We cannot take back what has happened in this country to Natives. It is already done; there is no going backward. But with inspiration and creativity, our young ones can help move us in the direction we want to go. Justice for Native communities could mean money owed to them from gains generated by the displacement and harm done by settlers. I have seen some small victories for tribal communities here in Minnesota, with resources being allotted to communities and land being restored to tribes.

What do you think needs to happen in the world to achieve justice for Native communities?

If there were to be justice, I believe a tally sheet should be created to determine what monies are owed to Natives for what was stolen from them. You can do a lot with money. It is the ticket to resources, jobs, education, building schools, paying good educators, and owning property. The American government and private companies should own up to what they did to Natives and provide monetary restitution. It would certainly give underserved tribal communities a little head start on saving up some acorns for the winter.

How do you express justice through your artwork?

I have used my work to discuss cultural health and wellness, and bring tribal language and stories to public spaces. We don’t always have to be angry in our artwork, or portray ourselves as victims. It is nice to create public artwork that comes from a place of peace and joy and hope because that is another part of justice – that we get to have these beautiful things in our lives.

Is there anything else you would like to share about Native justice and your artwork?

I like to tell the stories of our Native complexity, our joy, our humor, and our strengths. For instance, I currently have a digital mural on display in a concourse tunnel at the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport. The animated imagery depicts three Ojibwe stories from Northern Minnesota in a nine-minute loop with ambient sound. People flying into that concourse will get a little glimpse of Ojibwe culture and hear the language and know they are in Ojibwe country. I recorded my wife counting to 50 in Ojibwe and she provides the voiceover for the animated bird jumping from tree to tree, counting leaves. Through this art piece called “Manifesto,” I have been able to bring the knowledge and existence of our Ojibwe culture to a public space.