Jaune Quick-to-See Smith had never visited a gallery or art museum before college, but that didn’t deter her from pursuing her passion. Throughout her career, the artist’s work has hung everywhere from the Smithsonian American Art Museum to the Carnegie Museum of Art. Her piece “I See Red: Target” was the first painting on canvas by a Native artist purchased by the National Gallery of Art.
Now, roughly 50 years of her career — including paintings, drawings and sculpture exploring the importance of nature, history and conceptions of time and creation — are on display at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.
Born in 1940 in a Jesuit mission on the Flathead Reservation in Montana, Smith is a citizen of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation, and her work confronts the discrimination Indigenous people face in the United States and also pokes fun at the stereotypes.
“When I was a little girl,” she told a crowd gathered at the Modern, “we were asked to leave restaurants or stores with my father who was very dark. ‘We don’t serve Indians here.’ … So we didn’t wear anything that would identify us.”
When she learned about art history she saw several different renderings of the Madonna, also called the Virgin Mary or Mother of Christ, but they were all white. Smith decided to make a sculpture of her own, an Indigenous version, which is one of the first pieces that greets visitors upon entering the exhibition.
Around the mid-to-late ’80s and early ’90s, Smith began to feel that her works weren’t political enough so she started to introduce text into her art.
“People were saying, ‘Well, I don’t understand what this work is about, and I hear what you’re saying, but it doesn’t look that way to me.’ So I decided I would just put the text in there and just let it speak for itself,” she said. As a bonus, it helps the docents describe the work to tour groups.
Smith created a set of paper dolls in 1991 with Barbie and Ken Plenty of Horses and a variety of outfits such as “A suit for receiving U.S. gov’t rations when not allowed to hunt or gather our own food” and “Matching Smallpox suits after U.S. gov’t sent wagon loads of Smallpox-infected blankets to keep our families warm.”
Filling the wall of another gallery, an expansive 12-feet-wide mixed-media canvas depicts a long canoe, images of wildlife and a collage of headlines, including: “Have you lost your sense of direction?,” “Protect Endangered Loggers,” and “My daughter collects seashells. I collect air miles.” The shelf with plastic baskets mounted above the piece “Tongass Trade Canoe” is emblematic of her view that Americans are trading plastic for wildlife and natural landscapes.
“My father said, ‘Don’t criticize white people because it will help you get in trouble, but you can think it,’” she recalled. “So I think … one reason why I started going to newspapers was because it was a safe thing to do. It was already created and I could cut it out and paste it on here.”
In the ’90s, Smith was inspired by the boldness of younger generations, she shed her fear of wearing items that would identify her as Native.
Ironically, even today, if she wears a hat with beadwork or traditional earrings, she still gets comments about how she looks. The same thing happens to her son whenever he carries an embroidered bag.
“Some of the things we deal with are, ‘It doesn’t look Indian’ or ‘You don’t look Indian,’” Smith’s son Neal Ambrose-Smith said. “And it might sound strange, but that happens a lot of the time, like ‘Where are your feathers?’ that sort of thing.”
Smith’s work is grounded in research, but her own perspective is always present, whether she is challenging stereotypes, pointing out hypocrisy or turning a map on its side.
This subversion isn’t meant to evoke a power struggle but intended as a kind reminder that the land that would become the United States was settled long before Christopher Columbus and other pilgrims arrived.
“We were here first,” Smith said. “We’ve been here since creation time.”
About 130 pieces of her work will be on view at the Modern through Jan. 21.
Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.