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National Gallery Purchased First Ever Painting By Native American Artist

Updated: Jan 29, 2021

Many Native American artist tell the story of their heritage, culture, and history through art. One of the many examples is R. C. Gorman, who lived during the 1930s til early in the 20th Century. Growing up on the Navajo reservation in Chinle, Arizona, Rudolph Carl Gorman's family grazed sheep on the plains like his Native American ancestors. His family's history of being a descendant of sand painters, silversmiths, chanters, and weavers, as well as his understanding of traditional Navajo practices, inspired his artworks. Drawing ever since he went to school, Gorman began selling his work to nurses and doctors at his mission school in seventh grade.

When he came of age and joined the Navy in 1951, he continued to practice his craft by sketching the girlfriends of officers and enlisted men to earn extra pocket money. Though he aimed to become a writer after leaving the Navy, he switched gears when his art gained popularity.

After attending college, working part-time jobs, and creating more art, Gorman fell in love with the city of Taos in New Mexico. Dorothy Brett, owner of the Manchester Gallery in Taos, agreed to handle his work, resulting in a show that launched his career. Later in the late 1960s when the Manchester Gallery in Taos came up for sale, Gorman seized the opportunity and bought it. Initially, his new Navajo Gallery started with 55 artists, but, due to the lack of success of other's works selling, Gorman ended up only selling his own art. Over time, the popularity of his works, such as interpretations of Navajo rugs and pottery designs or his most successful studies of Navajo women, attracted celebrities including Elizabeth Taylor, Danny DeVito, and baseball pitcher Jim Palmer, to name a few, to visit his gallery.

In Gorman's autobiography, he wrote that he didn't mind being called an "Indian artist" and that

"I am an Indian. I am an artist. I'm an Indian painting Indians, and if it worked out for me, then it's all well and good."

1687-28 RC Gorman, "Monarch"

Succeeding R.C. Gorman, another prominent Native American artist that was also successful in being an influential artist today is Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, a Native American of French-Cree, Shoshone, and Salish blood New Mexican. She was brought up in a household where art and horses were equally important, which her art art reflects. Known for her complex abstract paintings since the 1970s, art critic Gerrit Henry (Art in America, 2001) writes:

“For all the primal nature of her origins, Smith adeptly takes on contemporary American society in her paintings, drawings and prints, looking at things Native and national through bifocals of the old and the new, the sacred and the profane, the divine and the witty.”

Smith has won various awards: Academy of Arts and Letters Purchase Award, New York, l987; the Women’s Caucus for the Arts Lifetime Achievement, 1997; the College Art Association Women’s Award, 2002; Governor’s Outstanding New Mexico Woman’s Award, 2005; New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, 2005; and many more. Her work has been featured in museums like the Museum of Modern Art, Quito, Ecuador and the Museum of Mankind, Vienna, Austria.

Despite her many accomplishments, it is only recently that she became the first Native American artist to have her painting bought by a national museum. Making history, the National Gallery of Art in Washington purchased I See Red: Target, a response to the colonization of America by Christopher Columbus.

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, I See Red: Target, 1992 (National Gallery of Art / Purchased with funds from Emily and Mitchell Rales)

When asked about why it had taken so long for national museums have art made by Native American artists, Smith answered, Because of popular myth-making, Native Americans are seen as vanished. It helps assuage the government’s guilt about an undocumented genocide, as well as stealing the whole country.

“My painting is caught in a perfect storm: Black Lives Matter, the death of George Floyd, Covid-19, the presidential election, the Standing Rock Sioux temporarily winning a stay on the pipeline and add to that the Supreme Court saying the Creek Indians do exist and their treaty is valid. These are possible reasons that caused my painting to be purchased.”

However, Smith has mixed emotions about her painting being collected by a national museum since Native art should have been added a long time ago. So, she listed other deserving native artists that should be in the National Gallery of Art's collection: Leon Polk Smith, painter from Chickasha, Oklahoma, who co-founded hard-edge abstraction; Fritz Scholder, a Luiseño pop art painter; and Kay WalkingStick, a Cherokee landscape painter. Smith continues by saying,

“It’s like we don’t exist, except in the movies or as mascots for sports teams, like the Washington Redskins or the Cleveland Indians. I hope this means they will make a concerted effort now to form a collection of Native American art.”

Smith's final wish is for Native history to be taught widely in schools to educate people about the true horrors of how Europeans conquered this country. Learning from history, people will not make the same mistakes.

Although though two styles of these two Native American artists are quite different, they both share commonality in cultural expression and serve to bring justice for the crimes committed against the Native community.






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