I walked over to the pop art gallery as often as I could since the painting came in February. Reaching up to the ceiling, the scale and the intense redness of the painting immediately catches your attention. In the top section is a clear, unobstructed pennant for the Washington, DC, football team. It’s like a punch, but it draws you in. And then you notice all the pieces, the scraps of newspaper, the comic book. It’s clear—the topic is racism. But the painting is full of discoveries for you to make—the artist is inviting a conversation.
This newly acquired painting is called I See Red: Target by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, an enrolled Salish member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation in Montana. As a citizen of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, to have a painting by a Native artist at the National Gallery of Art is incredibly powerful to me. Knee-buckling. Hits me straight through the heart. For the artist to be a politically savvy icon like Smith is beyond anything I could have ever dreamed for the Gallery. That Smith calls out the Washington NFL team specifically? We just kicked up the significance 1,000 notches.
I will never forget when I learned this painting was coming to the Gallery. I had followed our director’s career when she was at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and specifically as her former museum organized the groundbreaking exhibition Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists. We had spoken about the exhibition and my passion for Native art, so when Kaywin showed me the image of the painting she was hoping to acquire, I immediately choked up. And she just said, “I know.”
I think it’s fair to say that Native artists have not been well represented at the Gallery. We have a couple dozen works on paper that are quite beautiful, but those works are fragile and aren’t on display very often. The pieces in our collection have actually never been exhibited by the Gallery. But a painting is a different story—it’s not as delicate as a work on paper. This painting is taking up space, both figuratively and literally.
On March 13, the day before we closed, I went back to the galleries to say, “Denadagohvgee”—I will see you again. I wanted this painting to know that we were leaving, but we would be back. The guard on duty commented that so many people had been coming to see the painting that day, and we had a thoughtful conversation about racism and Smith’s message to her audience. The dripping red paint, the target at the very top, the buffalo, the repeating images of a community services pamphlet, and of course, the pennant—it’s beautiful and balanced, and filled with underlying rage.
Native people are often left without a voice. Native people must decide to take up space—to use our voices in the most powerful way we can think of. And when we do, we represent more than 500 tribes. It’s a ridiculous responsibility. This painting is a loud and powerful voice at a national museum. When you walk in the gallery, you cannot ignore it. While we’re closed, though, the painting is silent. (The sad irony that sickness silenced this painting is definitely not lost on me.) I want to give this painting its voice again.
Another painting in Smith’s I See Red series is called I See Red (Snowman). It is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a red snowman. When talking about that painting she said, “Painting out the white of the snowman for a red one is a political act.” Smith asks us to consider what we think we know about history, race, and identity. And I am hard-pressed to think of a more relevant conversation right now. When we reopen, we will not be in the world we were when we closed. This painting will make people uncomfortable. It will generate conversations. In the meantime, I lift this painting up here to give voice to Smith’s action. Look. Listen. Consider. We have changed. Now what?