Native American artist Jamie Okuma is battling cultural appropriation — one fab shoe at a time.
Identifying as Shoshone-Bannock and Luiseno, Okuma is an artist currently residing on the La Jolla Indian reservation in Pauma Valley, Calif. Her artworks — many of them including customized designer footwear — offer a modernized, but authentic, take on her culture’s traditional beading techniques.
“With my work, people can see what actual native design looks like,” Okuma said. “I’m drawn to ultra-expensive [styles] and creative shapes. I don’t use new forms of beadwork, but technique-wise, there’s a lot of new ways I’ve been forced to create.”
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Much like her works, Okuma’s upbringing was a mix of the modern and the traditional. Though she grew up on a reservation, Okuma was born in Glendale, Calif., and lived in Los Angeles until the age of five.
“My parents wanted to raise me on a reservation, so my mom left — in my eyes— a job of a lifetime. She worked at MCA Records,” said Okuma. “She was a graphic designer in the ’70s doing album covers and, lord, the bands she came across in those days! Needless to say I was raised in the art world.”
After taking classes at the Palomar College and Institute of American Indian Arts, Okuma then began creating her own fashion works. Her first showing was at the Santa Fe Indian Art Market at age 18.
Okuma says the desire to create fashion pieces stemmed from a somewhat unexpected inspiration — her shopping problem.
“I was shopping on Yoox and mom said, ‘Too bad there isn’t a way for you to combine your shopping issue with what you do,’ ” said Okuma. “We wondered if I could actually bead on ultra-luxe shoes and boots. So I gambled on a pair of Christian Louboutins, not knowing if I could pull it off or if I was going to destroy a $900 pair of shoes.”
The initial idea turned into a full-time project. Now, Okuma frequently uses Louboutin’s red-soled shoes as the base for her designs. This relationship between the traditional and high-fashion is on the rise, too — for resort ’16, Valentino even partnered with Metis artist Christi Belcourt on an entire collection.
“It was so amazing to see legit native designs combined with such a fashion powerhouse as Valentino,” said Okuma.
Okuma’s works have since been displayed at a wide range of museums and exhibits, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her art is currently on display as permanent collections at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the National Museum of the American Indian.