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Jaune Quick-To-See Smith: Memory Map

Seattle Art Museum, 1100 First Ave, ph: 206.654.3100

Mon & Tues Closed, Wed-Sun 10am-5pm

This show: Feb 29–May 12. See website for ticket prices.

We are so lucky to have the major retrospective of the outstanding Native American artist, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith until May 12.

Smith is a brilliant artist as well as an activist for other Indigenous artists. For example, early in her career, she participated in ensuring funding for the Institute of American Indian Arts, a crucial school that has trained many successful Native artists.

She usually works in the European technique of oil on canvas and printmaking with Abstract Expressionist and Pop art stylistic references, although an early series was painted on animal skins.

She turns the modernist tradition on its head. Rather than the utopian abstractions that mask imperial drives, she fills her work with Native perspectives on ecological and political conditions. She inserts into her drips and strokes and bright colors pictograph-like images of horses, humans, dogs, coyotes, birds, and salmon. These two dimensional signs are often combined with written comments and collaged texts that directly comment on the catastrophes that result from White people’s greed and ignorance. One work includes the entire text of an Isaac Smith treaty from 1850’s that took Native land.

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, "Tongass Trade Canoe," 1996, oil, acrylic, paper, newspaper and fabric on canvas with wood shelf and plastic bins, four parts, 60 x 150"

Trade canoes are a major theme in Smith’s work. In this exhibition we have eight, two actually built of pinewood lath with her son Neal Ambrose-Smith.

As an object in itself a canoe can simply refer to a means of transportation and community connection. The cultural significance and challenges of canoe journeys are now familiar to us. Revived in 1989, this year hundreds of canoes from all over the Northwest came to Alki Beach where the Denny party landed in 1851 greeted by Chief Seattle.

The artist states:

“Remember when the trade canoes came up river, they would be piled with bags of moldy flour, wormy beef, whiskey laced with lead and blankets smeared with smallpox” (p. 21 Memory Map, interview with Lowery Stokes Sims)

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith began depicting canoes at the time of the 1992 celebration of Columbus’ arrival in 1492. Needless to say, the arrival of Columbus was no cause for celebration among Indigenous peoples. So this first canoe called Trade Gifts for Trading Lands with White People is full of amusing details, such as the “gifts” strung across the top of the painting are Indian themed kitsch. The canoe is empty unlike her subsequent canoes.

The trade canoes in the exhibition are full to capacity with people, animals, trees, and imaginary creatures. They are often surrounded by a sea of collage that speaks to the abuses and contradictions of native life. But one of Smith’s amazing talents is taking the dreadful and making it amusing even as we don’t lose sight of the horrors. I think this is called Indian humor.

Tongass Trade Canoe 1996, a blockbuster painting, refers to the attempt to bring oil drilling to the fragile Tongass National Forest, the calving land of the Caribou, whom we see galloping across the top of the painting. Above are real laundry baskets suggesting a commodity that comes from oil drilling. The Tongass, after a decade of fighting, was finally protected in 2023 from development (we hope).

Smith’s takes on famous white artists and, in my opinion, outdoes them by adding much more meaning. The maps in the exhibition were initially inspired by Jasper Johns but look where the artist goes with them.

In Homeland, we see the focal point of the radiating lines is Montana in the upper left where the artist was born. There is a US map underneath, but the radiating lines and colors create an entirely new dynamic. Smith dismisses the traditional lines of US maps, the states, as arbitrarily cutting across Indian lands and tribes.

Look for other repeated icons in her work, especially horses and buffalo and food and General Custer in deep trouble.

What the artist cares most about is the land and the deep connection of all Indigenous people to their land in spite of the ravages of the White greed for oil, gas, and other sources of “energy’.

In 2023 she curated a major exhibition at the National Gallery called: The Land Carries Our Ancestors, Contemporary Art by Native Americans that demonstrated that this theme pervades contemporary native art. It included fifty Native artists and essays like “Sky as Place, Land as Body, Landscape as Spiritual Compass,” by heather ahtone and “Land/Landbase/Landscape” by Smith. Creating this exhibition simultaneously with her own retrospective speaks to her deep connection to her community.

So clear your schedule and come see more than once “Jaune Quick-to-See Smith Memory Map” an outstanding exhibition by one of the most creative thinkers working today.

~Susan Platt, PhD


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