'It's like we don't exist': Jaune Quick-to-See Smith on Native American artists | Art

‘It’s like we don’t exist’: Jaune Quick-to-See Smith on Native American artists | Art


Earlier this month, the National Gallery of Art in Washington announced it had made history – it bought a painting by a Native American artist for the very first time.

The gallery purchased I See Red: Target, a 1992 piece by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, a response to the colonization of America by Christopher Columbus.

Though the museum already owns dozens of works on paper by Indigenous artists (which have rarely, if ever, been on display), the museum calls it “the first painting by a Native American artist to enter the collection”.

One has to wonder: why did it take so long for a national museum to acquire contemporary Native American art? “Good question,” says Smith, 80, to the Guardian from her home in Corrales, New Mexico. “Because of popular myth-making, Native Americans are seen as vanished. It helps assuage the government’s guilt about an undocumented genocide, as well as stealing the whole country.”

Smith, who is a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai nation in Montana, adds that the acquisition comes at a poignant time in history, considering the changes in the world.

“My painting is caught in a perfect storm: Black Lives Matter, the death of George Floyd, Covid-19, the presidential election, the Standing Rock Sioux temporarily winning a stay on the pipeline and add to that the supreme court saying the Creek Indians do exist and their treaty is valid,” she says. “These are possible reasons that caused my painting to be purchased.”

This historic moment is what Smith calls breaking the buckskin ceiling. “I have mixed emotions; I wonder how is it that I am the first Native American artist whose painting is collected by the National Gallery?”

She refers to other prestigious Native artists whose work should also be in the National Gallery of Art’s collection, such as Leon Polk Smith, a painter from Chickasha, Oklahoma, who co-founded hard-edge abstraction; Fritz Scholder, a Luiseño pop art painter; and Kay WalkingStick, a Cherokee landscape painter, who is 85.

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith - I See Red: Target, 1992
Jaune Quick-to-See Smith’s I See Red: Target, from 1992, now on display in Washington. Photograph: National Gallery of Art

“It’s like we don’t exist, except in the movies or as mascots for sports teams, like the Washington Redskins or the Cleveland Indians,” says Smith. “I hope this means they will make a concerted effort now to form a collection of Native American art.”

Smith was born in 1940, on the Flathead reservation in western Montana. After studying art in Washington in 1960, she saw her rise as an artist throughout the 1970s, fusing together American advertising, pop art, Native identity and history into her prints and abstract expressionist paintings, which are environmentally conscious.

Her artwork always tells a story. Browning of America taps into cultural oppression and environmental loss, while Untitled (Wallowa Waterhole), honors the birth of Lore Momaday, the daughter of the Pulitzer-winning Native American fiction writer N Scott Momaday.

Smith’s artwork, too, represents how alienated Native Americans are in modern culture, while tapping into overlooked history. Her painting Tribal Map pastes on the names of Native American tribes – from Cherokee to Potawatomi and Chippewa – on to a map of the United States. (“I only named half of the states, the ones that carry Native American names, and left out all the states with European names.”)

Her 1992 artwork, I See Red: Target, is an 11ft-tall mixed media piece on canvas. It was created in response to the quincentenary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in America, and can be viewed in the East Building pop art galleries alongside artworks by Louise Bourgeois and Jasper Johns.

Smith references Johns’ famous Target painting from 1958, which depicts a painted bullseye. Here, she flips it to represent the Native American perspective, by placing a dart game target at the crown of the artwork, in addition to arranging darts in the shape of headdress feathers.

On the canvas underneath, she has collaged it with newspaper photos from the Char-Koosta News (the official publication of the Flathead reservation, where she was raised), in patterned rows.

“I placed the photographs in linear rows to mimic Andy Warhol’s Orange Car Crash because I was presenting a tragedy.”

The artwork reads “Destroy the Myth,” alongside photos of Natives from Smith’s tribe, patterned across the surface. “The myth is that Native warriors were at war all the time like the Europeans,” she says. “Only we didn’t have horses or steel swords or guns.”

As a reflection on the commercial exploitation of Native culture, it feels timely. Just last week, Washington’s NFL team agreed to drop their name and logo after pressure from sponsors.

“This issue has existed my whole lifetime,” says Smith. “There are over 2,000 secondary schools in the country, colleges and other sports teams that have Native American names, so my painting should remain viable for some time to come.”

She recalls being a student herself, remembering that as a young artist, Native American art wasn’t deemed “collectible”.

“Those of us who went to college were overlooked or disqualified as not being authentic, so our artwork was considered to be bastardized,” she says. “Many of our museums are filled with antiquities, but no contemporary art made by living Indians.”

Smith’s Tribal Map, from 2000.
Smith’s Tribal Map, from 2000. Photograph: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

This moment could signal a shift for museums to collect more Native American art. “I yearn for the day when Native history is taught in public schools across the nation,” says Smith. “The only state that teaches Native American history and current life in public school curriculum is Montana. This is a shocking fact.”

Smith, who will be showing this fall at the Garth Greenan Gallery in New York City, doesn’t mince words when it comes to describing the hardest part of her career as a female artist, one who has had over 125 solo exhibitions, and having been included in over 680 group exhibits. Her answer is simple: “White men.”

For young artists today, she dispels the dream of the ego-driven art star. “Don’t think for a minute that because you see your name in the paper that you’ve made it – that’s good for 15 minutes, as Warhol pointed out.

“Particularly when we have political and racial motivations for improving justice, animal rights, women and children’s rights, and our endangered planet, we need to keep talking, teaching, painting, writing and staying engaged. We can never retire.”



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