Modern Native American art: Angel DeCora's transcultural aesthetics.

Author:Hutchinson, Elizabeth

The point at which Native American art (or indeed any indigenous tradition) became "modern" is a matter of much debate. Some locate it as soon as artists began producing objects for Western viewers. Others identify it with the point when they started working in Western media, especially easel painting. Still others claim that the only "modern" artists are those who use the visual idioms of modernism in their work. These definitions are important, because in addition to describing different approaches to modernity in art, they also frame discussions of the role of artists' ethnic identities in the creation and reception of their work. Artists and critics regularly debate whether and how work by Indian people should communicate the ethnicity of the artist to the viewer. The work of Angel DeCora, a Hochunk painter, illustrator, and designer who worked at the turn of the last century, provides an excellent opportunity to explore the meanings of modern Native American art. The best-known native artist in the Unite d States before World War I and a student of some of the leading European-American art teachers of her day, DeCora is rarely discussed in contemporary histories of Indian art. (1) A reconsideration of her career offers important insights into the intersections between art, modernity, and ethnic identity that have been ignored in previous histories of Native American art of this period and presents a valuable case study for the art of colonized peoples in general.

An assessment of DeCora's accomplishments is difficult to make because of the small number of works by her available for study. Extant identified works include two illustrated stories in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, illustrations and cover designs for five books, and a handful of illustrations published in Southern Workman, Indian Craftsman, and American Indian Magazine. three journals associated with the Indian reform movement. Only three of her presumably many paintings have been located, but the fact that she trained and worked as an illustrator makes it logical to analyze her illustrations as closely as her paintings. (2) first glance, DeCora's work may not strike the viewer as either modern or Native American. Her earliest dated paintings, the Harper's illustrations, which accompanied her own stories in 1899, use academic poses and realistic perspectival space (Figs. 1, 2). They lack the distinctive look of the flat, decorative "studio style" paintings of the 1920s and 1930s that have dominated twentie th-century discussions of modern Indian art (Fig. 3). (3) DeCora's mastery of European-American illustration and design styles has probably led to many of her published works going unrecognized as the products of a Native artist.

The fact that DeCora's pictures so closely resemble European-American imagery of the same period might lead viewers to assume that she had been thoroughly absorbed into mainstream American culture. Yet DeCora's work fits each of the definitions of modern Indian art given above: it was made for a mixed Native and non-Native audience, it uses Western media, and it shows a sophisticated engagement with the aesthetic issues of her day, including a nascent interest in abstraction. More important, it also proposes another definition of modern Indian art--namely, work that visually represents the transcultural condition that defines modern Native American experience. Drawing on her personal life, contemporary aesthetic theory, and the principles of the progressivist Indian rights movement of which she was a part, DeCora's work describes the fraught relation to mainstream American culture of members of her generation. Using key terms from postcolonial theory, including transculturation and hybridity, it is possible t o read DeCora's work as a challenge to the European-American view of Indians as members of a "vanishing race," presenting instead an image of survival and adaptation for the Native American members of her audience.

Indigenous Art and Transculturation

An examination of DeCora's work does more than insert a little-known figure into Native American art history. It also contributes to a paradigm shift in this field. Early historians of Native American art privileged artistic traditions that seemed untainted by Western influences. Hybrid art forms were dismissed as inauthentic, assimilationist, or even degenerate. In recent decades, however, art historians have become interested in how indigenous material and visual culture can express the transcultural situation of American Indian people.

The concept of transculturation. developed by anthropologist Fernando Ortiz early in the twentieth century, is central to the work of many of these scholars. (4) Transculturation describes the painful impact of colonialism on indigenous culture as more than the simple replacement of traditional beliefs with European ones in what has been called acculturation. Key to Ortiz's theory is the uprooting of old cultural forms and the creation of new ones that reflect marginalized peoples' relations to mainstream culture. As Mary Louise Pratt has explained, transculturation allows critics to examine the cultural mixing--or hybridity--that characterizes the indigenous experience of colonialism. Pratt focuses on the importance of the "contact zone," that is, "the space in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and intractable conflict." (5) At the same time, the chaotic natur e of these spaces can allow members of marginalized groups to improvise and interact in productive ways.

Transculturation allows us to see how Native American art of the past five centuries relates to the difficult history of political and economic relations between Natives and non-Natives. Ruth Phillips has recently argued that the souvenirs produced by Northeastern Indians in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries need to be seen as a response to the physical and cultural displacement caused by European settlement. Similarly, David Penney and Lisa Roberts have applied Ortiz's terms to the Pueblo painters celebrated by modernists in the early twentieth century, (6) connecting the emergence of their work to the artists' experience of the intensely assimilationist United States Indian policy of the period. DeCora's story illuminates a period between these two studies. The years surrounding the artist's birth in 1871 were marked by the expansion of United States programs of Indian management under Ulysses S. Grant's "Peace Policy." Formally implemented in 1869, this policy intensified programs designed to "Americ anize" Native people through education, religious conversion, and the forced introduction of European-American forms of work on reservations. The assault on tribal sovereignty was intensified with the passage of the Dawes Act in 1887, which called for the division of communal reservation land into privately held farms. As other scholars have explained, the federal project of assimilating Native American people failed for many reasons, including corrupt administration, unqualified and inexperienced staff, inadequate economic and political support, and naivete about Indian people's willingness to abandon their culture. DeCora experienced many of these policies firsthand; she was acquainted with many employees of the federal Office of Indian Affairs (hereafter OTA) and, for a time, its employee. The devastating effects of these policies created the environment in which DeCora's work was produced and influenced the reception of her work by both Indians and non-Indians. (7)

Over her career, DeCora constructed an increasingly explicit concept of modern Native American art. As I will show, she began by appropriating European-American forms to express the conflicts she faced as an academically educated, ambitious female artist with strong connections to both mainstream and Native culture. In time she developed an understanding of the formal and cultural significance of modern Indian art that she shared with students, scholars, and political activists. Her definition of Native aesthetics was political: it insisted on the uniqueness of Native American culture and the importance of preserving it and adapting it to modern aesthetic and economic conditions. Because of this, DeCora's work can be seen as a visual mode of transculturation--a selective appropriation of a dominant cultural form as a means of forging a new "modern" sense of ethnic identity.

Social Movements and Social Aesthetics

In 1911, DeCora made a speech linking American Indian art to the role of Indian people in contemporary society. She accepted that modern Indian people would have to let go of some cultural practices but predicted that art was an ethnic quality that would survive. "The Indian in his native dress is a thing of the past, but his art that is inborn shall endure," she wrote, "He may shed his outer skin, but his markings lie below that and should show up only the brighter." (8) DeCora believed that the beauty of Native American art could help Indians retain a proud sense of ethnic identity and encourage non-Indians to be more tolerant of cultural diversity. These attitudes were the direct result of her experiences in mainstream society. DeCora's life was marked by two strong influences: the progressivist women's Indian reform movement and the socially oriented aesthetic theory that dominated the American art world at the time. As I will show, each of these placed tremendous confidence in the power of art to influen ce social values.

DeGora's immersion in European-American values began when she left her family in Nebraska at the age of eleven to attend the Hampton Institute in Virginia. Originally founded to educate former slaves to become productive members of mainstream society, Hampton began enrolling Native Americans with the same...

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