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Gambit Weekly Visions and Voices

By D. Eric Bookhardt

JUNE 15, 1998:  Despite all the hype, jargon, digressions, dissertations and academic postulations, art always has been a reflection of the lives of the people who made it. This is as true today as it was at the beginning, and it is especially true for Native Americans, for whom life was governed by their spiritual relationship with the earth, by their belief in nature's balances and cycles. For them, the world was divided into the realm of living creatures and the realm of the spirits, and each affected the other. Among those living creatures was a species known as Caucasians -- Europeans, pale-faces, European-Americans or white people -- who had an effect on all of the above.

Beyond the aggression, confusion, confiscations and forced migrations that characterized the "trail of tears" -- the resettling of once-free people onto reservations that could not sustain life as they knew it -- Native American arts and artists also were influenced by the gradual process of Europeanization. Whether that was good or bad depended on who you were. Europeanization enabled native artists to communicate to those who lived beyond the reservation, which in turn fostered greater understanding as well as increasing the value of their art as a commodity. But even so, people who lived in harmony with the earth had very little need for art as a commodity in the first place, because their lifestyle was an art form in its own right with its own organic aesthetic.

The New Orleans Museum of Art's Visions and Voices show traces the evolution of Native American art and artists from pre-Columbus to modern times in what amounts to a study in cultural survival. Paint has a rich history in Native America going back thousands of years, but it was usually applied to pottery, shields, clothing and the like. In the earliest known paintings by the Plains Indians, a helter-skelter style of abstraction prevailed. Produced to record important events, they were more documentary than decorative. By the mid-19th century, however, the influence of European art was being felt, and human figures began to look more and more representational.

The most notable parallel with European painting harks to the earliest examples of the medium in both places -- the caverns, where the most mysterious shamanic rituals took place. As with the Native Americans, European cave paintings featured wild beasts and human stick figures as well as rather haphazard compositions in which new images were superimposed on existing ones almost like an overlay. The stick figures resembled runes or calligraphy more than anything representational, as had been the case in the Americas before Columbus. After Columbus, the story became much more convoluted.

For instance, The Exploits of Kill Eagle, 1870, by Kill Eagle, a Blackfoot Indian born in 1826, is a tribal war scene painted on a buffalo hide. Featuring horses and braves in battle regalia, the composition is as helter-skelter as most traditional native paintings, and, like most such efforts, it depicts a noteworthy event. Despite his attempt to flesh out figures with more detail, the final effect is strikingly reminiscent of the ancient cave paintings at Altimira and Lascaux in southern Europe, especially in the way the horses are portrayed in graceful galloping postures.

Stephen Standing Bear's At the Battle of Little Big Horn is similar in style despite being painted later in 1931. An eyewitness and participant in the bloody late 19th century battle between the Indians and the U.S. Army, Little Big Horn depicts the carnage from a poetic, if deadpan native perspective. As Standing Bear himself put it, "When we killed the last man it was just a sight, with men and horses mixed up together -- horses on top of men and men on top of horses." Which describes the helter-skelter feeling of the work as well.

By the middle and late 20th century, the overall look of much native art had become representational, though still rather flat, in styles that sometimes spanned the distance between Zen drawings, Persian miniatures and Walt Disney cartoons. It was the culmination of a process that started a century earlier, when American easel painters like George Catlin came West and began painting native subjects in their natural habitat. They were keen observers, but they also were keenly observed, and the natives soon began painting illustrationally on scraps of cloth or paper (the ledger books of traveling merchants became a favorite drawing pad), depicting the history and customs of their people from their own perspective.

Most native art still reflects the Santa Fe or Western Realism school even now, but of late a new generation has melded Indian traditions into the contemporary art world, resulting in work no less abstract than that which greeted Columbus. And once again, the sun and the moon have heeded the call of the Great Spirit, renewing the vision of the ancestors at the dawn of a new cycle of time.


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