Tag Archives: representation

What Counts as “Indian Art?”

by Guest Contributor Gwen, originally published at Sociological Images

In the opening essay to the book Shared Visions: Native American Painters and Sculptors in the Twentieth Century, Rennard Strickland and Margaret Archuleta write,

J.J. Brody in his classic study, Indian Painters & White Patrons, identified the colonial nature of a patronage system that narrowly defined and dictated what was “Indian art”…It seems almost as if definitionally…that paintings by Indians can be considered only in a primitive, aboriginal context. (p. 9)

They discuss Oscar Howe:

…[he was] thwarted in developing new directions in painting and striving to break away from the old stereotypes limiting Indian art…one of Howe’s Cubist style paintings was rejected from the 1959 Indian Artists Annual because it was “non-Indian” and embodied a “non-traditional Indian style.” (p. 9)

Strickland and Archuleta quote a letter from Howe to a friend:

“There is much more to Indian Art, than pretty, stylized pictures…Are we to be held back forever with one phase of Indian painting…?” (p. 10)

One of Howe’s Cubist paintings:

What Strickland, Archuleta, and Howe (as well as other contributors to Shared Visions) are discussing is the pressure American Indian artists have often faced to create a certain type of art. This pressure may come from other Indians or from non-Indians. Non-Indians have often had significant power over Indian artists because of their role as benefactors (providing money for artists to attend The Studio at the Santa Fe Indian School, for instance) and because non-Indians are the majority of buyers of art created by American Indian artists. And benefactors and art collectors often have a certain idea of what “Indian art” is, which includes assumptions about both themes and styles. Specifically, they want “traditional” images that depict Native Americans in a pre-modern world, often including images of animals.

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