The best way to measure the impact of Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (b. 1940; citizen of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation) is not narrowly through her historic retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the first such presentation for an Indigenous artist organized by the nation’s premier museum dedicated exclusively to American art.
She’s bigger than that.
A sense of her impact can only be adequately appreciated by widening out.
Widening out to Wendy Red Star (Apsáalooke) at the Columbus Museum of Art. Exhibitions of contemporary Indigenous photography at the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Denver Art Museum. The first presentation of contemporary artwork from Seminole Indians in a Florida art museum. The Counterpublic triennial in St. Louis prominently featuring Anita Fields (Osage/Muscogee) and Cannupa Hanska Luger (Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara/Lakota). Jeffrey Gibson (Mississippi Choctaw-Cherokee) at the Frist Art Museum in Nashville.
A small sampling of the prestigious exhibitions of Native American art on view this spring around the country.
Smith influenced each of these artists, directly or indirectly emboldening each of them and 1,000 more to share unapologetic, contemporary, sometimes confrontational stories of indigeneity. She influenced each of these institutions and hundreds more, blazing a trail into their revered spaces, her artwork clearing a path for others to follow.
She has both made the way and shown the way, embodying the spirit of lifting as she climbs.
“I feel like somebody has to do it,” Smith told Forbes.com. “It might as well be me since my years of experience make me a good candidate, but I bring my community with me anywhere I go.”
Her impact takes especially dramatic form four miles from the Whitney in Brooklyn Bridge Park where Nicholas Galanin’s (Lingít and Unangax̂) 30-foot-tall In every language there is Land / En cada lengua hay una Tierra sculpture boldly affirms that we are on native land. All of us.
None of this happens without Smith who it would be impossible to argue is not the GOAT of contemporary Native American art–the greatest of all time. At least for influence.
She didn’t do this by herself.
Maria Martinez (San Ildefonso Pueblo), Nampeyo (Hopi-Tewa) and other Indigenous potters demonstrated more than a century ago that the artistry and skill of Native American material culture was on a level with anything else on view in a fine arts museum. They cracked the museum door.
Fritz Scholder (Luiseño) and T.C. Cannon (Kiowa, Caddo) proved Native people could do the same with so-called “fine art.” Their paintings and Allan Houser’s (Chiricahua Apache) sculpture pushed Native art metaphorically into the lobby.
Over her 50-year career, Smith has made it all the way inside, generations of Native artists following in her wake, taking up residence in art museums across America–the good ones anyway. Not so long ago–in this century–Indigenous art got the side eye when on display in these hallowed halls. Now such spaces get the side eye when failing to display it, anymore, an inexcusable omission.
“(This exhibition) cannot signify a benchmark for a whole race of people,” Smith said. “It can signify to an individual Native artist that perhaps that buckskin ceiling has been broken and possibly more Native artists might follow.”
Cara Romero (Chemehuevi). Marie Watt (Seneca). Doug Hyde (Nez Perce, Assiniboine, and Chippewa). Emmi Whitehorse (Diné). Julie Buffalohead (Ponca). Edgar Heap of Birds (Cheyenne). Rose Simpson (Santa Clara Pueblo). Virgil Ortiz (Cochiti Pueblo). Yatika Starr Fields (Cherokee, Creek, Osage).
A dozen more.
And a dozen more.
That’s Smith’s impact.
This journey has been excruciatingly slow going.
Unbelievably, Smith became the first Native American artist to have a painting acquired by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 2020. 2020! As in three years ago 2020.
The National Gallery of Art for the United States of America did not deign to acquire a piece of Native American painting until 2020. The museum was established in 1937.
That’s not progress, that’s an outrage. An utter dereliction of duty.
“If we honor our ethnic groups such as Asian Americans, African Americans, Latinx Americans and leave out Native Americans, then we are missing a quarter of our American culture, a quarter of our knowledge base and a major part of our American history,” Smith reminds. “This is significant ignorance.”
That ignorance has been purposeful.
Native art and artists are everywhere and have been everywhere as long as these institutions have been open. Native art doesn’t fill these spaces because of scarcity or lack of quality, it doesn’t fill these spaces because the curators, directors and collectors who make those decisions deemed it unworthy. By extension, they deemed Native people unworthy.
Smith cites the murder of George Floyd by police, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the water protectors at Standing Rock staring down militarized private and government mercenaries as calling attention to the galling lack of minority and Native American representation in “mainstream” museums. Make no mistake, historically and today, these artists have had to force their way into these spaces.
The Whitney’s invitation to Smith, late arriving as it was, remains atypical.
But that’s changing, and it’s changing because of Smith.
“We need to not let up the pressure in order to decolonize the major institutions throughout the U.S.,” Smith said. “Just because these institutions may not exist next to a reservation doesn’t mean there are not Natives there—we are everywhere, so my advice is to be aware.”
Smith’s other advice, her hope for the nation’s culture-bearers, is to hire Native people across the museum. It’s no longer enough to show Native American artwork. Native Americans must be hired as curators–as docents–they must sit on boards and be hired in directorial positions. They must be hired as lawyers and contractors and accountants and art handlers and conservators and chefs in the café and in every other role museums require.
Jaune Quick-to-See Smith: Memory Map opened at the Whitney on April 19th as the most significant solo exhibition for a Native American artist ever. The prestige of the museum, the scale of the show–the largest and most comprehensive of her career displaying more than 130 works across two floors–its location in New York, all are unrivaled in stature.
She more than just takes up space there, she owns it.
Smith has been creating complex abstract and representational paintings, prints, sculptures and installations since the 1970s. Some of her earliest work, rarely seen in public, is on view.
Her distinct visual language combines appropriated imagery from commercial slogans and signage, art history–Picasso, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg–and personal narratives. Maps figure prominently; maps of America. They are perhaps her most iconic device. If not maps, then canoes–trade canoes full of objects she’d like to send back to the colonizers: Christianity, syringes, trash, single use plastic. She uses text, George Armstrong Custer and the buffalo, rabbit and coyote deeply symbolic to many Native American cultures.
All are employed, along with heavy doses of humor and satire, to convey her insistent socio-political commentary with powerful clarity.
“The big get is to show people that we exist, that we are still here, that we have not vanished as we invade white institutions,” Smith said.
Native people exist and are contemporary. If visitors to Memory Map or any other exhibition of contemporary Native American art take something from the show, let it be that.
In conclusion of her email interview with Forbes.com, she shared a poem she had recently written entitled, A Short History of America:
Snow White came from Europa
She kissed the Frog
Who turned into
A Ledger Book Prince
She converted corn
She put everything
Up for sale.