Art for Earth’s Sake
Jimmie Durham, La Matlinche
“One of the most terrible aspects of our situation today is that we do not feel we are authentic. We do not think that we are real Indians … For the most part, we just feel guilty, and try to measure up to the white man’s definition of ourselves.” –Jimmie Durham, Cherokee poet and artist
None of the native languages of North America contain a word that can be regarded as synonymous with the western concept of “art”–which is separable from the rest of daily life. It might, therefore be possible to argue that no art in the Western sense was produced by the aboriginal inhabitants of North America. But the number of books devoted to museums exhibiting, and dealers offering for sale items of “North American Indian Art,” belie this truth about the Native Americans.
The capacity of language to construct a reality should not be overlooked. When the values and meanings of one language are superimposed upon another, major cultural misperceptions arise. Compounding the experience of disorientation felt by many aboriginal peoples is now the demand that the cultural language of the colonizers has to be appropriated for them to survive.
The question of how to relate to the language of their colonizers has caused much debate within aboriginal communities. This is clearly evident in the arts communities of Native Peoples. Leonard Crow Dog, a Sioux medicine man, explains:
Our modern Sioux language has been white-manized. There’s no power in it. I get my knowledge of the old tales of my people out of a drum, or the sound of a flute, out of my visions and out of our sacred herb pejuta, but above all out of the ancient words from way back, the words of the grandfathers, the language that was there at the beginning of time, the language given to We-Ota-Wichasha, Blood Clot Boy. If that language, these words, should ever die, then our legends will die too.
Paula Gunn Allen, in her book The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in Native Traditions, writes:
American Indians are tribal people who define themselves and are defined by ritual understandings, that is, by spiritual or sacred ceremonial shapings . . . their communitarian aspect derives simply from the nature of the tribal community, which is assumed to be intact as long as the ritual or sacred center of the community is intact.
So then in relation to ritual and ceremony where does art exist? To ritual-based cultures, it seems, the “Arts” do not exist. According to anthropologist Christian F. Feest, there was no word for art found among pre-modern American Indians.
Jimmie Durham, Tlunh Datsi
How then do the visual linguists of the aboriginal peoples of North America deal with the use of a language descended from European history? We cannot deny the presence of the European aesthetic and its cultural implications, which include patriarchal, materialistic and anthropocentric viewpoints. All is not submerged however in the dominance of a Western view. Alfred Young Man, a Plains Cree, who is an Assistant Professor in Native American Art at the University of Lethbridge, defines the status of contemporary aboriginal art in its own terms:
Art, in the American Indian world view today, is being used in ways that question the very foundation of Western thinking. Native artists have taken this predominantly linear, left brained mode of thinking to task. They are radically altering the non-Indians’ perception of Native Americans and the way they perceive themselves as contemporary people living in the twentieth century, into what the American Indian was before Columbus; not a regression back to a perceived primitivism and stone age mentality, but ahead to what they take to be a superior and more human value system.
One thing that could be clearly detected in the latter part of the twentieth century was a need, evidenced in Western cultural thought, to challenge the prevailing cultural paradigm. Suzi Gablik, artist and cultural critic in her book, The Re-Enchantment of Art, contests that a de-mythologized culture becomes addicted to whatever anaesthetizes the pain of meaninglessness and archetypal starvation. She states:
Our culture has failed to generate a living cosmology that would enable us to hold the sacredness and interconnectedness of life in mind … Art moved by empathetic attunement, not tied to an art historical logic but orientating us to the cycles of life, helps us to recognize that we are part of an interconnected web that ultimately we cannot dominate. Such art begins to offer a completely different way of looking at the world.
This appeal for an ethos of connectedness fails to take into account the 500 years of colonization which created a sense of disconnectedness in the first place. What irony for a people devastated by the reductionism and dualism of their oppressors to hear the appeal for an acknowledgement of sacredness and transformation in their own culture. But we have been trying to tell you this for hundreds of years. Why did you not listen then? Why now? One might hear the past and present voices of the people of the First Nations saying to us.
The future of the art of the American Indian lies outside of the artificially constructed boundaries of “Western Man’s” mythological universe. The search for my “art” pays homage to my People’s traditions while working towards stripping away layer after layer of the European mistake, most of which depended upon assuming that I was some sort of bona fide colonialist animal, made over into a second rate image of the white man. The whiteness belongs to them! Let them have it. (Young Man. A. Issues and Trends in Native American Art 1988.)
Gerald McMaster, Little Big Horn
An Alternative Aesthetic
So the dilemma of the contemporary aboriginal artist is: How to relate to a cultural system which presents an opposing world view, a different aesthetic?
If a cultural aesthetic, in all its seeming complexity, is the result of a specific cultural history and mindset then where do the colonized fit into both the process and outcome of that version of reality?
The First Peoples’ contribution to Western history has not been as colonizer or despot, and, like indigenous peoples throughout the world they have had to adapt to survive. However, we should not see them as mere victims of colonization either as that would ignore their achievements and contribution to the present cultural milieu, a contribution that remains unacknowledged in both the fields of literature and the visual arts.
How then is contemporary native work to be contextualized? How is it to be viewed? If the premise of the work of First Peoples is distinctly different from the white, Euro-centric thesis, then how is it to be regarded? It may well be that it has to be experienced, as opposed to being reduced and analysed, for it often demands an experiential relationship with the viewer than merely an intellectual one–or more–it demands both.
To deconstruct this work in post-modernist fashion is inappropriate, and places it into an alien context. However, we should be wary of isolating it as though there were a ‘Nativist’ movement divorced from the realities of the Post-Modern world. Loretta Todd, a Metis film maker, states:
But what of our own theories of art, our own philosophies of life, our own purposes for representation? By reducing our cultural expression to simply the question of Modernism or Post-Modernism, art or anthropology, or whether we are contemporary or traditional, we are placed on the edges of the dominant culture, while the dominant culture determines whether we are allowed to enter into its realm of art.
This problem of the right of self determination and purpose of representation can be clearly seen in the situation of the Australian Aborigines. Contemporary Aboriginal art from remote Australian communities exists in the world marketplace today as a deliberate transformation of ancestral designs originally made for ceremony.
Professor Nicholas Deleary of Trent University, Ontario, set out to define what we must do in order to engage with native culture in a way that may open us up to a deeper understanding:
If we choose to try to understand and sensibly appreciate Native Culture, way of life and spirituality we must be willing, first of all to accept that there is involved a very special way of “seeing the world”. Secondly, and a necessary further step, we must make an attempt to “participate” in this way of seeing. The implications are very serious. Quite simply, if we are to accomplish this it can mean a significant transformation in our thinking and living in the world. If we are not willing to consider another way of ‘seeing’ the world, and, possibly eliminate entirely our chances of even really understanding Native peoples and their ways.
Jimmie Durham, Untitled
Countering the Stereotype
The perceived cliché of the Native American artist is one that has plagued aboriginal artists from the beginning of the century when the Institute of American Indian Art was set up to develop Native easel painting. In 1958, Oscar Howe, a Sioux painter, submitted a painting to the Philbrook Art Centre, which had pioneered an annual exhibition of ‘Indian Art’. Oscar had his painting rejected because it was said to be not ‘a traditional Indian painting’. Oscar Howe responded with a moving letter which addressed, probably for the first time, the strictures of expectation placed on aboriginal artists.
Dear Mrs Snodgrass,
Whoever said that my paintings are not in the traditional Indian style has poor knowledge of Indian art indeed. There is much more to Indian Art than pretty stylized pictures. There was also power and strength and individualism (emotional and intellectual insight) in the old Indian paintings. Every bit in my painting is a true studied fact of Indian paintings. Are we to be held back forever with one phase of Indian painting, with no right for individualism, dictated to as the Indian has always been, put on reservations and treated like a child, and only the White Man knows what is best for him? Now, even in Art, ‘You little child do what we think is best for you, nothing different’. Well I am not going to stand for it. Indian Art can compete with any Art in the world, but not as a suppressed Art. I see much of the mismanagement and treatment of my people. It makes me cry inside to look at those poor people. My father died there about three years ago in a little shack, my two brothers still living there in shacks, never enough to eat, never enough clothing, treated as second class citizens. This is one of the reasons I have tried to keep the fine ways and culture of my forefathers alive. But one could easily turn to becoming a social protest painter. I only hope the Art World will not be one more contributor to holding us in chains.
One of the most powerful contemporary voices to challenge the reductionist attitudes towards aboriginal people is the Cherokee artist Jimmie Durham. Durham counters the most cherished white liberal image of Indianness – the Noble Savage stereotype. He attacks the museological context into which Native Peoples are placed and confronts us with an assemblage of found objects constructed into parodies of the ‘Indian’ as misrepresented by the establishment view.
To be an American Indian artist is quite possibly to be more sophisticated and universal than many white artists can manage. But people approach American Indian Art with an expectation about what that art should be. I suspect, perhaps cynically, that some people enjoy a frisson of the exotic mixed with a safely disguised guilt, plus the comfort expected from a familiar landscape …
It would be impossible, and I think, immoral, to attempt to discuss American Indian art sensibly without making central the realities of our lives. One of these realities is the racism manifested in the stereotypes by which North Americans may deny other political realities such as enforced poverty and alienation and constant land loss. It is because of such stereotypes that people often expect American Indian art to concern itself with only the most comforting subject matter. If one goes to an exhibition of Latin American art, there is the expectation that political realities will be taken up constantly by the artists. But American Indian art is supposed to transcend that in mystical ways, or perhaps sometimes now to present the case in such a way that the American people can be entertained by our sorrows. (Durham. “A Certain Lack of Coherence”)
Not content with allowing others to perpetrate a reductionist and inappropriate analysis of their work, aboriginal artists seem to be defiant in their stand to define their own work and its very nature. The question must be asked, if we are to view the contemporary arts of Aboriginal Americans, and if this view requires a specific way of seeing, as Professor Deleary contests, then where do we acquire this alternative mode of perception?
Artist/writer. Cultural theorist. Interests in non western contemporary art; art of the “marginalized” and the value of the creative process in itself. Founder of A.I.M. (Artists in Mind) an arts and mental health charity based in the UK.