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From the Vault: Native American art

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Submitted Art "Indian at the Bar," 1971, by Fritz Scholder, Luiseño, color lithograph on paper. Gift of Donald B. Anderson.

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

By Aubrey Hobart

Curator of Collections and Exhibitions

Roswell Museum and Art Center

When someone mentions Native American art, what do you think of first? Beadwork? Baskets? Pots? Dolls? These are all traditional art forms that have been produced in North America for centuries. But why are traditional art forms the ones that most often come to mind? Native American people live in the same modern world as everyone else, with access to cellphones and the internet, and are as familiar with pop culture and politics as any other American. So it stands to reason that indigenous art forms can and do change with the times like the arts of any other culture.

Until the 1940s or so, Native American art was generally excluded from galleries, auction houses and other trappings of the contemporary art market. Instead, the people buying it were mostly tourists, who wanted authentic souvenirs of their travels. Since tourists wanted traditional-looking goods, and were willing to pay for them, indigenous artists continued to produce them. However, here in the Southwest, things began to change. First, a painting studio was set up at the Santa Fe Indian School in the 1930s. Although the white instructors of the school encouraged their indigenous students to paint in a flat and primitive style, focusing on culturally specific subjects like ceremonial clothing and dance, they were also introducing new mediums and markets for Pueblo artists.

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World War II offered the first opportunity for many Native Americans to be welcomed into wider American society through their participation in the armed forces. Carl Gorman (Navajo), for instance, was one of the initial 29 men recruited to develop an unbreakable military code based on the complex grammar of the Navajo language. However, this knowledge wasn’t just theoretical; these soldiers constantly relayed and translated messages while under heavy fire in the field. Fifth Division signal officer Maj. Howard Connor said of them, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.” After the war ended, Gorman took advantage of the GI Bill to study European art at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, California. Refusing to be boxed into the version of Indigenous art that was being promoted at the Santa Fe Indian School, he experimented with abstraction and various modern techniques, as well as with ceramics, tile, silk screening and jewelry design. Gorman passed down his open-minded approach to art and his range of inspiration to his son, R.C. Gorman, who became quite a well-known artist in his own right.

The civil rights struggles of the 1960s and ’70s led to expressions of indigenous pride and a new cohort of young Native American artists who were interested in combining the trends of contemporary art with their cultural traditions. Fritz Scholder (Luiseño) was on the forefront of this movement, inspiring a generation of art students at the newly formed Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe in the 1960s. Rather than teaching a specific style or technique, Scholder said, “The main thing is know who you are; it should come out in your paintings, and it will if you are honest with yourself. I don’t think you should be concerned with style or especially with what is in or out now. You must paint for yourself and you must be most concerned with the critic in the mirror. Until you do that, you won’t find yourself as an artist.”

Trained as a painter, Scholder began lithography (stone printing) at the Tamarind Institute. In fact, he was invited to do the first major series printed at their new facility in Albuquerque after they’d moved from Los Angeles. Never having made prints before, he was learning as he went, but eventually developed a series called “Indians Forever” in 1971. The work on this page, “Indian at the Bar” comes from this initial series and depicts a Native American man drinking a beer. The main figure’s face is inscrutable under his hat and sunglasses and his body is just a ghostly white apparition. In comparison, the detail of the beer can and its color draw the viewer’s attention, bringing awareness to the epidemic of alcoholism in many indigenous communities. Scholder doesn’t paint traditional Native American scenes, nor does he paint in a traditional style. Only the fact that the subject is Native American suggests that the painter might be as well. He once said, “People say that I must hate Indians since I sometimes paint them as monsters. But I paint what I see, faces reflecting the torment in the minds of Indians today, torment resulting from the impositions on them of contemporary American society.”

Other Indigenous artists who have made a name for themselves in the contemporary art world include Bob Haozous (Apache) who makes paintings and sculptures that reflect on his heritage and the environment; Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (Salish) who combines Native American symbols with abstraction and politics; and Milland Lomakema (Hopi) who bases his work on motifs taken from ancient ceramics and rock art in order to document and preserve Hopi visual culture. If you’d like to see more contemporary art by indigenous artists, the work of everyone I’ve mentioned here and many others will be on view at the Roswell Museum and Art Center from Jan. 15 through June 20 in the show, “Indigenous American Art, 1960-2000.”