When I go to a contemporary art museum and fall in love with a work of art, the chances are pretty good that it will turn out to be by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. Although her work is often academic, intellectually challenging and carefully controlled, it is never cold or unwelcoming. On the contrary, it is passionate and asks pointed questions of the viewer: “Are you paying attention?” she demands. “Is this how you want the world to be?”
Quick-to-See Smith is an enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of Montana and was born on the Flathead Reservation in 1940, but she is also of Métis-Cree and Shoshone descent, and now resides in Corrales, New Mexico. Her father was an itinerant horse trader and rodeo rider, so the huge Smith family moved frequently up and down the West Coast, and Quick-to-See Smith herself often had to labor as a migrant farm worker when school was not in session. However, she took her education very seriously and although it took 16 years of hard work and perseverance, she was able to eventually complete her bachelor’s degree by working as a waitress, pre-school teacher, factory worker, housemaid, librarian, janitor, veterinary assistant and secretary. Her degree is in art education rather than art because her professors told her that a woman could never make a living as an artist, even as they acknowledged that she was the best artist in their classes. Undeterred, she got a master’s degree from the University of New Mexico in 1980 and began to work full-time on her art. She has since had more than 100 solo exhibitions, has given guest lectures all over the world, curated dozens of exhibitions of Native American art and received several honorary doctorates.
In the 1980s, Quick-to-See Smith’s art generally consisted of modernist landscapes juxtaposed with Native American pictographic symbolism. An example of this is the exquisite “Ghost Dance” from 1981, which is in the collection of the Roswell Museum and Art Center, and currently on display in our Made in New Mexico exhibition. If you mentally erase the deer and buffalo images from the work, what is left is a perfect understanding of Abstract Expressionist painting that would not be out-of-place anywhere in the contemporary art world. However, by including the jarring presence of the animal pictographs on the abstract background, the artist directs our attention to some important questions — how do Native American people (and their imagery) fit into the contemporary abstract world? Are they excluded by choice or circumstance? And given that both contemporary art and Native American art are typically interested in using simple, abstracted forms to convey ideas, are they really so different?
All this tension is underscored by the fragility of the medium. “Ghost Dance” was drawn on paper with pastels — a kind of deeply pigmented colored chalk. Pastels are not colorfast — they fade when exposed to light — and they are never permanently adhered to the paper. Even decades later, a single touch could smear the colors and leave chalk on your hands. This is why the museum protects the work with glass and cannot leave it on display for very long.
The title of this work, “Ghost Dance,” references a Native American religious movement from 1890. A spiritual leader named Wovoka (Jack Wilson) of the Nevada Northern Paiute Nation had a vision where he spoke with God, who explained that if every indigenous person in the Western United States performed a specific five-day circle dance, it would reunite the spirits of the dead with the living to fight the encroaching white colonists on behalf of all Native Americans, bringing peace and prosperity. Unfortunately, tensions were high at the time between the Lakota people of South Dakota and the U.S. government, and agents from the Bureau of Indian Affairs misunderstood the Ghost Dance as a ritual that was done before battle. This led to the deployment of thousands of U.S. Army troops to the reservation and ultimately the Wounded Knee Massacre on Dec. 29, 1890.
A century later, Quick-to-See Smith’s art became more overtly political in opposition to the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas. In 1991, she produced “Paper Dolls for a Post-Columbian World with Ensembles Contributed by U.S. Government,” which depicted the fictional characters Ken and Barbie Plenty Horses as paper dolls with various outfits, such as a maid’s uniform for cleaning white people’s houses and matching smallpox suits. The work is intended to be shocking but demonstrates a dark humor, as well. It is angry yet resigned.
There’s so much depth to Quick-to-See Smith’s vision and I’ve barely scratched the surface. I think her work is thoughtful and brilliant, but I encourage you to judge for yourself. Just visit RMAC soon because it won’t be on view for very long. Then you can answer the artist’s questions: “Are you paying attention? Is this how you want the world to be?”