What is the role of an artist? What is the role of an Indian artist? And by Indian I mean Native American, Indigenous, etc. — choose your terms, by your decade. Let’s not obfuscate the meaning or the question. What does it mean to be an Indian artist?
My own definition of an Indian artist is one who creates art and identifies as an Indian. That’s pretty much where my definition ends. After that the sky's the limit.
And why does this even matter, this question of the role of an Indian artist? To me the word artist is synonymous with “truth-teller”. I want to say I’ve read this phrase long ago in some fancy literary journal that only a few academics have read and I want attribute the phrase to the terrific Muskogee Creek poet Joy Harjo. Truth be told I’m not sure who said it. But I’m fairly sure it’s hardly the first time the thought has been uttered. I think we can somewhat agree that (good) art aspires to a common truth amongst us all.
To be a truth teller sounds pretty amazing to me. Call it what you will, a seeker of truth, storyteller, painter, musician, craftsperson, carver, traditionalist, avant-garde, potter, saxophone player, flute player (flutist?), creator. These all sound like great things to be, given this context.
I’m not sure we respect our artists as much as we should in Indian country. Also we tend to mix up the artist with those who make craft. Craft, or arts and crafts, is certainly not a dirty phrase mind you. Those who create arts and crafts are keepers of traditions and in many cases are one of the few who continue our heritage and cultural customs consistently. They are known for their research and meticulous approach to carving, music, song, etc. They help us to remember who we are and where we come from.
And then there’s the fine artist. They are always out there, creating, somehow, in the midst of full time jobs, children, education. They do it because they have to. It is the need to create. For me, it is the thirst for knowledge I have had as an infant, I must know, therefore I must find out. This thirst for knowledge and skill can translate to anything really, whatever you do. For the artist however, you must unlock the unconscious and attempt to make sense of that. You choose to convey a very human expression that hopefully is relatable to someone. The closer to truth we are, the closer to understanding we become. Understanding what? I say understanding, period.
When Dorothy Dunn told Allan Houser all those years ago at the Studio in Santa Fe, NM, at the birth of "traditional" Indian painting in the Southwest, to paint within the rules, he resisted. He attempted to go by her rules and the rules that society dictated he create within, and he played along, and he made some fine paintings in this style. It was when he left and was given the opportunity to explore his ideas without fear of repercussion that he became the world renowned fine artist he was destined to be. He was allowed to explore and create, freed to make his own mistakes, and in the process, created a new way of seeing his figural Southwest images in sculpture. He showed us what he saw, his beautiful truth.
Houser wanted to be considered a fine artist, not an Indian artist or a maker of crafts. His goal was large. He wanted to make work that spoke to people of all ages and ethnicities worldwide. He had painted in what was considered a "traditional" style, yet his passion was to explore ideas, to see what lies outside those black lines that outlined each of his figural images on the canvas.
I think in Allan Houser lies a good lesson. Here is a man who knows his tradition, is proud to be a Chiracahua artist and yet, at the same time, did work that could stand up next to any of his non-Indian contemporaries. While his colleagues were looking to oceanic, African, Navajo sand painting, and other so called primitivist art sources, Houser was creating from the inside out, already based in a traditional culture and looking to modernist painting styles and appropriating modernist influences such as abstraction. He was entirely comfortable in who he was and felt comfortable taking what he liked from the outside world. This is not so different in what we do today as modern Indian people.
The role of an Indian artist is large, to those who take it seriously. I salute those who create and explore, for our lives would be so much less without these Indian scientists of the humanities, exploring and conjuring up new ideas for us to talk about. They create new ways for us to see the world, seeking truth.
Jason Asenap (Comanche/Muskogee Creek) is a veteran of the American Indian Arts/Disney/ABC Summer Television and Film workshop, and was one of four Sundance Institute NativeLab fellows. His current projects include Rugged Guy and a documentary about the history and influence of the Comanche Nation on the Native American Church.