Harry Fonseca | Fire



In this 1988 acrylic on canvas, Harry Fonseca depicts Coyote seated at a grand piano with flames emerging from the soundboard. The work is graphic, featuring a black and white checkered floor and a brilliant royal blue background. Coyote, whom Fonseca habitually instrumentalized as a stand-in for himself, plays the piano while howling into the air. The two-dimensionality of the work is echoed by the flat plane the artist has rendered—however, that does not take away from the exuberance and energy that emanate from the work. This anthropomorphized Coyote illustrates the liminality of the artist’s depiction of the body as both human and animal form.

Acrylic on canvas
60 x 70 in
Image by Craig Smith for Heard Museum

Nisenan Maidu/Hawaiian, b. 1946
Harry Fonseca was born in Sacramento, California in 1946, of Nisenan Maidu, Hawaiian and Portuguese heritage. He studied for a time at Sacramento City College and with Frank LaPena at California State University at Sacramento. As he was reluctant to become an academic stylist, he chose not to continue formal art education but pursue his own vision instead. Fonseca’s earliest pieces drew from his Maidu heritage that was influenced by basketry designs, dance regalia and his participation as a dancer. The Creation Story was a major presence in his work beginning in 1977, inspired by the storytelling of his uncle, Henry Azbill. By 1979, the art of Harry Fonseca focused on the recurring figure of Coyote, a trickster, shape-shifter and storyteller capable of moving undetected between different worlds within the context of a contemporary world, in which new freedoms and old biases often exist side by side. As both a gay man and a person of mixed heritage, Fonseca used his work as a vehicle for self-discovery as he navigated different aspects of his life and identity during a time when ideas about Native peoples were driven by outside forces, including commercial markets, tourism and historical clichés. Fonseca was an instrumental force in reshaping Indigenous art with his trademark blend of traditional imagery, contemporary experience, and vibrant color and form. As he used his art to explore both his personal journey and the role of history in shaping Indigenous consciousness in the present, he sought to expand definitions of Indigenous art and to shatter the expectations and stereotypes that had long confined it.