Oscar Howe and the Philbrook Museum of Art, 1958
The Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, OK, established a national program in 1946 for Native artists to submit work for an annual juried exhibit; it became one of the preeminent places for native work to be exhibited as art and not as cultural artifact. (Wyckoff, 1998) It was also the site for one of the turning points in the establishment of the canon of what constituted Indigenous art.
Two things are noteworthy about this initiative. First, that it was deemed necessary to establish an exhibition space in an art museum for indigenous artists’ work. Work by indigenous artists have been collected prior this period, but it had been exhibited as anthropological artifacts, not as art; on the other hand, art about indigenous populations, such as Edward Curtis’ photographs, had been exhibited in art museums. But this exhibition space also marks the work of indigenous people as different from real or unmarked art. Consider, for instance, the idea of a juried exhibit for African American artists only that would be apart from the art exhibited in the permanent collections. Even now the amount of space for indigenous artists’ works is far less than for other groups, and it is represented by the culture, not the artists. This is most apparent in the labeling paradigms used by most museums, which lists culture, not artist, and thus erases the contribution of the individual in favor of a corporate identity. “Recognizing that Native American art was made by individuals, not the tribes, and labeling it accordingly is a practice that is long overdue,” said Dan L. Monroe, executive director of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA; he adds: “Continuing to follow past practices, perpetuates a set of ideas, values, and historical practices laden with racism, ethnocentricism and tragic and destructive government policies.” (Dobrozynski, 2011)
Second, and equally problematic, was the determination of a particular style for inclusion into the juried selections each year. This, of course, was not a particularly new phenomenon: think of the reception and rejection of Manet’s Dėjeuner sur l’herbe; Manet’s initial rejection, however, was a reaction to a stylistic revolution that changed the whole artistic vision.
Oscar Howe is one example of the imposition of cultural norms being determined through the stylistic canon argument. Although Oscar Howe had been admitted and awarded the Grand Prize in prior years from the members of the Philbrook committee and had a one-man exhibit of his work in 1956, in 1958, his submission, Umine Wacipe: War and Peace Dance, was rejected by the committee because it did not adhere to the prevalent style acceptable at that time for indigenous artists. (See figure 1 as an example of Howe’s later work.) Wyckoff has described this style as “ceremonial or mythic themes relating to life of the Indian peoples…with flat design and solid colored areas.” (Wyckoff, 14)
Indeed, Howe’s rejection instigated his famous call to arms in which he rejects the Western ossified standards of “authentic” native art and becomes with this manifesto, an early proponent of art without these kinds of imposition of stylistic norms:"Who ever 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 paintings 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…." (Oscar Howe, Letter to Philbrook Indian Art Annuals Jurors)
Even with Howe’s rejection of the stylistic norms of the jurors, he is invoking the terms of the judgment: every bit in my paintings is a true, studied fact of Indian paintings, suggesting that he has to place his paintings among the Indian paintings, rather than among the modernists. In fact, he rejected what seemed to be stylistic elements from Cubism, for instance and firmly placed himself in the Indian tradition.
Questions to Consider'
- Why this separation from the mainstream traditon and insistence upon his connection to the Indian tradition?
- What do we mean by authentic with regard to indigenous art?
- Do we ask the same questions of other artists in different traditions?
- How do we determine what is canonical? Who contributes to a canon?
Works Cited and Consulted
Lydia L. Wyckoff, ed., Visions and Voices: Native American Painting from the Philbrook Museum of Art. Tulsa, OK: Philbrook Museum of Art, 1996.
Judith Dobrozynski, “Honoring Art, Honoring Artists,” New York Times, Feb. 3, 2011, p. 2.
Bill Anthes, Native Moderns: American Indian Painting, 1940-1960, Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2006.