A New Exhibition at the Whitney Museum Explores Questions of Identity and Tradition Through Works of Jaune Quick-to-See Smith
By Scarlet Cheng
The new exhibition “Jaune Quick-to-See Smith: Memory Map,” which just opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (through August 13, 2023), is a landmark in so many ways. With more than 130 works, organized across two floors of the Whitney, it is the largest exhibition ever for the artist, as well as the first solo exhibition for an Indigenous artist at the Whitney—the oldest art museum in New York and one of the leading art museums in the United States.
Why did it take so long? In a forward published in the exhibition catalogue, the Whitney’s director, Adam Weinberg, acknowledges that they had not made a strong commitment to collecting Indigenous art until fairly recently, in the last decade. “In its more than 90 years of existence, its commitment to Indigenous art has been de minimis,” he writes. “‘Jaune Quick-to-See Smith: Memory Map,’ debuting in 2023, is the first retrospective of work by an Indigenous artist that the Whitney has ever organized.” The Whitney is now trying to make up for lost time. “Much has been done in the last decade, he says, “Since 2015, we have presented eight special exhibitions, six permanent collection installations, and nine performance programs featuring Indigenous artists. And, since our opening downtown, we have acquired 88 works representing more than 30 Indigenous nations, which is more than we had acquired in total in the more than 80 prior years of the Whitney’s existence.”
It is indeed surprising that this would be the first solo for an Indigenous artist at the Whitney, but not so surprising that they chose Smith. First, they have a strong holding of her work in their collection, mostly from donations; second, her impressive body of work over the span of a long career makes her an elder of sorts among Indigenous artists; and third, her work speaks to her background in a very contemporary way.
Born January 15, 1940, on a reservation at the St. Ignatius Indian Mission, Jaune Quick-to-
See Smith is a Salish member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation in Montana. Her first name, Jaune, means “yellow” in French and comes from her French-Cree ancestry; her Indigenous name, Quick-to-See, was given by her Shoshone grandmother, indicating a talent for quick apprehension. Smith was interested in making art since she was a child and kept pursuing that path. This was despite discouragement by a high school counselor who didn’t think she was college material because of her Indigenous background and a college art professor who didn’t believe women could have art careers. Fortunately, she didn’t listen to them.
Smith later went to Massachusetts and got a B.A. in Art Education from Framingham State College in 1976; in 1980, she received an M.A. in Visual Arts from the University of New Mexico. What she learned from her teachers and the contemporary art she saw was to use whatever material might work in making her own art. She was impressed, for example, by the work of Ed Keinholz, as well as that of Marisol, at the Museum of Modern Art. Thus, she uses charcoal and pastels; she uses oil and acrylic; she uses collage, integrating newspaper text or printed textiles. Smith had her first solo gallery show in 1979 at Kornblee Gallery in New York, featuring her pastels, for which she received a positive review in Art in America.
The Whitney exhibition has been curated by museum assistant curator Laura Phipps and is arranged thematically. Smith herself likes to work in series and is motivated by real-life issues concerning social justice and protection of the environment and the land—matters about which she keeps informed. “I’m constantly reading articles about climate change, social justice, indigenous seeds and plants, art books, education, and Indian politics among other things,” she said in a 2017 interview for the Missoulian newspaper.
Land and Maps
“The land is Smith’s history, her present, and her hope for the future,” writes Phipps in the exhibition catalogue. We see this over and over again in her work, whether it be about a specific area, such as in the Petroglypth Park series, or about the United States as a whole, as in her Memory Map series, the series which gives the exhibition its title.
In Petroglyph Park she addresses historical wrongs dealt Indigenous people, including land grabs and the erasures of culture. Just outside the urbanized part of Albuquerque, New Mexico, lies the West Mesa, which has been undergoing residential and commercial land development. This site is home to some 24,000 images carved into lava rock by Native Americans and Spanish settlers—mostly done between 400 to 700 years ago, with a small percentage dating as far back as 3000 years. The images include birds, horses, and other animals, human figures, and various symbols, such as the symbol for the sun similar to the one found on the New Mexico state flag. Although we don’t know the exact reasons for the images and their placement in this area, we do know that the territory has long been sacred.
Smith, who moved to Albuquerque in 1976, began her Petroglyph Park series in 1985 out of her concern for the preservation of these sacred lands. In pastel and charcoal on paper and oil on canvas work, the series incorporates petroglyph-style images and places them against abstracted landscapes that can be read as mountains and mesas. In the large painting Herding (1985), horses on the upper left and lower right of the canvas are being herded by humans, all delineated in a stick-figure style. They are set against a dramatic background of jagged lines and blues and earthen tones.
Her voice, along with that of other activists, helped lead to the establishment of the Petroglyph National Monument in 1990, which protects the area and has made walking paths for visitors. It is jointly managed by the National Park Service and the City of Albuquerque. However, the fight continues, as a decade later a developer asked for the extension of the Paseo del Norte highway, which removed some boulders with petroglyphs—and the project was completed in 2007.
Related to her recognition of the land as the site of both celebration and trauma are her Memory Maps, starting in the 1990s, which incorporated a map of the United States. One of the most haunting of these was painted relatively recently, Homeland (2017), an oil and acrylic painting that is six feet wide, showing a roughly drawn outline map of the United States that includes shadowy lines for state borders. From a focal point in the Northwest, rays of different colors and concentric circles radiate outwards. That point is where Smith herself was born and raised: the Flathead Reservation in Montana.
This work is, of course, self-referential, but it also questions our point of view. Is there really one point of view when it comes to history and culture? Generally, the center of the U. S. might be thought of as Washington, D.C., the political capital—or New York or Los Angeles, the cultural capitals. This painting asks us to re-examine that notion.
Indeed, it seems to me that thinking about being an American and what it means is one of her key themes. In The Vanishing American (1994) she’s created a stack of masks and boxes—some ghostly masks running along the top. Interspersed are phrases pulled out of newspapers, such as “The Making of a Comeback” and “Support the Tribal Dollar.”
Rabbits and Other Creatures
In Indigenous culture the land and all the creatures upon it are part of a whole. Certain animals are especially popular in folklore and visual representation, such as the Coyote and the Rabbit, who take on human traits. “Coyote is part of our Salish creation story, s/he helped Amotken ‘turn on the lights’ at the beginning of the world,” Smith said in the Missoulian interview. “Coyote is also every human, foolish, bright, conniving, beneficent, helpful, greedy and generous. Coyote is a trickster and is always turning everything around, upside down.” Meanwhile, Rabbit is also a trickster character, but one who can be beneficial to humans. “Rabbit is a part of the Cree-Chippewa-Ojibwe creation story in the Great Lakes and is known there as Nanabozhou or the Great Rabbit. Similarly s/he was sent by Gitche Manitou to help the humans and is also a trickster…. These two tricksters guide me through my painting, my dreams and my stories. They are my assistants, my posse, they make me see the flip side of life and its ironies.”
In Survival Suite: Wisdom/Knowledge (1996), a lithograph featuring chine collé, a yellow jackrabbit with a glowing red outline is standing upright. Look closely, and you will see that his body is placed over the floor plan of a cathedral—symbol of the Catholic church leadership that came to conquer the people of the Americas, along with the Spanish soldiers. In the exhibition catalogue Josie M. Lopez writes about this work, pointing out that the cathedral is a “symbol of European invasion and the role of Christianity in uprooting and destroying Indigenous culture, community, and traditional connection to the land.”
Above the rabbit is the word “TRIBE,” and underneath him is the word “COMMUNITY.” The rabbit stands confidently, even defiantly, with his chest thrown out and his arms akimbo. Here we see some of the wry humor which Smith often includes in her work.
On occasion, the artist also shows us the dark side, for example in work that depicts the infamous Lt. Colonel George Custer, who fought against Indigenous peoples in the Indian Wars, or features skeletal/death-like figures such as in the painting Imperialism (2011). In the latter a grimacing person painted in black holds up a big stick, with one foot planted on top of a head; the ground beneath his feet is red, while a devilish creature, replete with trident, seems to be cheering him on from the right.
The canoe is another icon she often features in her work. Canoes are conveyances—traditional transportation along the rivers and lakes—and for Smith they are also containers of objects and of culture. In the 160-inch wide triptych painting Trade Canoe for the North Pole (2017), the long canoe is laden with palm trees, ducks, buffalo, horses, people, and objects. In the middle, acting like a captain or overseer, is the figure of a standing coyote.
“I made a Trade Canoe loosely based on Noah’s Ark with lots of survival basics so that we can farm in the Arctic,” Smith said in the Missoulian newspaper interview. “I loaded this canoe with lots of things we might need such as palm trees, which are a highly sought after crop these days. A little-known fact is that palm oil is in a lot of what we eat, what we lather on our bodies and even in what we wear.”
Jaune Quick-to-See Smith is a visionary artist who should be far better known by the public and accepted into the discourse of contemporary American art. This exhibition should help push in that long-overdue direction.