Heap of Birds, with his painting, "Smile for Racism"

American Indian Painters Travel to Paris, Bust a Few Stereotypes

Dominique Godreche
4/5/12

Eleven Native artists went to Paris late last year for an art show titled Oklahoma Painters, which was part of the sixth annual Art en Capital event at the massive Grand Palais. The exhibit was set up by curator Russell Tall Chief, Osage, director of arts & exhibitions at the American Indian Cultural Center & Museum in Oklahoma City, at the request of Ginette Adamson, a painter and former French Literature professor who divides her time between Strasbourg, France and Oklahoma. The Native artists exhibited watercolor and acrylic paintings in the Salon of Drawing and Watercolor Painting, one of five legendary annual exhibitions drawn together at the Grand Palais.

The artists were Edgar Heap of Birds, Joe Don Brave, Anita Fields, Yatika Fields, Brent Greenwood, America Meredith, Navarre Scott Momaday, Tom Poolaw, Marla Skye, dg smalling and Dana Tiger. The exhibit ran from November 22 to 27.

For a Parisian public largely unfamiliar with contemporary Native art, the opportunity to view the works and meet the artists was unprecedented. French ideas about American Indians are still, like those of many people around the world, associated with the romantic vision derived from Hollywood movies and the photos of Edward Curtis: feather headdresses, leather loincloths and face paint. Many visitors were taken aback by this display of modern Native creativity. “I am surprised by the great diversity,” said one. “These works are all grouped under the label Native. I am looking for a common touch in the paintings, and I don’t see one. Coming to this show, I had a simplistic vision, a fantasy of a single unified culture. But I see a wide variety in this art; these painters are drawing on their culture’s past, yes, but from modernity and classicism as well.”

French art lovers were introduced to American Indians through the surrealist movement. The poet André Breton, writer-actor Antonin Artaud and other surrealists cherished Native American culture: Breton became a kachina collector


after visiting the Hopi in 1927, and Artaud related his peyote adventures among the Tarahumaras (also known as the Raramuri, located in Northwestern Mexico) in his book Les Tarahumaras. Artaud vividly described the profound feeling of wonder he derived from participating in their rituals; the element of the supernatural inherent to their world; and the link between the visible and the invisible.

“The French have had an interest in Native American culture from the beginning of the 20th century,” explains Julien Flak, a Parisian gallery owner who specializes in ancient Native art. “Inspired by Buffalo Bill and the surrealists, we’ve been drawn to pipes and Plains Indian clothing—whatever is evocative of Western movies. We also have a female clientele fond of small kachinas as colorful, playful, joyous representations.… But it is important to recall a fundamental difference between the American and the European approach to Native art: An American collector will relate it to his own history, by searching for a sign of his past and deal with his feeling of guilt that way. This is because a strong sense of guilt still exists in the United States. This aspect is absent among French collectors; we know about the conquest and the extermination of Natives. But it is not our history. Our relationship to that culture resides in the dimension of dream, of childhood. The movies we had seen at the time. This is how we know Native American art.”

During the show’s run, one could hear Parisian visitors trying to reconcile their visions of Native culture with present realities. “Are those paintings made by real Indians?” asked one patron. Some expressed surprise at not seeing feathers and other folk elements familiar to them.

Heap of Birds, Cheyenne Arapaho, who displayed his painting Smile for Racism, attended the Royal College of Art in London and has exhibited at the Venice Biennale, anticipated the locals’ nostalgic, limited vision: “I really wish to change the French stereotypes of Natives, as represented by Disney, or a romantic vision of Native people, and raise awareness on our culture. And I am not here just as a Native American artist: I am both Native and American. I do not choose the label of Native, as I consider it limiting. And there is no Native America—there are groups of tribes who are not united by anything.”

Tall Chief said, “Europeans seem to appreciate Native art sometimes more than people from Oklahoma, who are used to it,

Russell Tall Chief

as it is part of their culture. The audience here has been intrigued and receptive.” Tall Chief even gave the French a taste of authentic Native heritage and culture, performing a traditional Indian dance at the Grand Palais. He is an esteemed straight dancer, is related to the famous Native ballerinas Maria and Marjorie Tall Chief. Marjorie, in fact, was premiere danseuse etoile of the Paris Opera Ballet. In attendance for that performance was movie stuntman Mario Luraschi, who is director of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show at Disneyland Paris, for which he trained some American Indian riders. Luraschi is among the most important collectors of ancient Native art in France; his ranch outside Paris is said to contain some 700 pieces.

The artists enjoyed seeing Paris, and enjoyed having Paris see them, and their work. They felt this was also a small step in the right direction because Parisians got to experience art that made them question some of their stereotypes. New York–based painter Yatika Fields seemed to sense that incremental shift. “Art is an evolution,” he said. “A process that goes day by day—it’s like history.”

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