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Members' Research Report Archive

Places to Stand: Histories of Native Art beyond the Nation

Jessica L. Horton
[University of Rochester]
Wyeth Fellow, 2011–2013

In 1988 Cherokee activist and artist Jimmie Durham (b. 1940) wrote, “I feel fairly sure that I could address the  whole world, if only I had a place to stand.” Following the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the spread of postcolonial theory, Durham voiced the frustrations of a generation of Native American artists and intellectuals that the United States and Canada continued to occupy not only the lands of indigenous peoples but also the very field of their representation. Durham and other politically engaged artists of the AIM generation have since joined their international peers to participate in networks of art biennales and studio residencies abroad. In my dissertation, “Places to Stand: Histories of Native Art beyond the Nation,” I consider the aesthetic, conceptual, and historical dimensions of their travels beyond national borders. I work to wrest a conversation about Native American art history from the impasse Durham described, by considering a wider range of places to stand.

One key aim of my study is to characterize the relationship between the recent transnational work of AIM artists and earlier critiques of the displacement of native peoples inside their colonial nations of birth. For this reason I begin my account in the 1980s, following the failed promise of AIM to reoccupy national territory for the purposes of indigenous empowerment. Fueled by this negative lesson, Native American artists and allied scholars launched the most potent critique of colonial nationalism to date. Much of the critical literature of the 1980s celebrated the native artist as a liminal “postmodern” trickster, whose marginal status vis-à-vis dominant centers of power was revalued and put to work as a tool of resistance. At the same time, trickster discourse echoed a longstanding European modernist trope of artistic exile and presaged the privileged itinerancy that would come to characterize the global biennale system. As contemporary art historian Miwon Kwon and others have noted, professional artists today hop from one studio residency and art biennale to the next, turning the terrain of geopolitics into a generic itinerary: “one place after another.”

Given that traumatic cycles of loss structure so many Native American subjects’ relationship to place, privileged itinerancy might seem to offer artists a seductive opportunity to move on. As some art historians have argued, Durham, James Luna (b. 1950), Edgar Heap of Birds (b. 1954), Robert Houle (b. 1947), and others can finally transcend the entrenched identity politics that characterized their work of earlier decades, to become “post-Indian” or “just contemporary artists.” Devoting three chapters to close readings of select projects made by Durham, Luna, and Houle for sites abroad, I reveal the “post” to be a mischaracterization. Even as they inhabit current global conditions of flux alongside non-native peers, their recent work problematizes a long-celebrated trope of artistic mobility in all its guises: modernist exile, postmodern liminality, and privileged itinerancy. In particular, multimedia installations in cities such as London, Venice, and Paris trade unmitigated transnational mobility for a kind of temporal agility, grounding the materials on view in forgotten stories of indigenous ancestors who traveled before them. This apparent paradox forms the crux of my argument: native artists’ search for “a place to stand,” recently figured as movement beyond the nation, has inspired counterintuitive forms of return.

The contemporary works I discuss contain an implicit challenge to art historians in that they creatively address omissions in a historiography of Native American art largely framed by national borders. Construing my dissertation as a lengthy response to their provocation, I devote two chapters to tracing additional, forgotten histories of Native American art in Europe. My research in neglected archives abroad reveals that in the 1930s the first professional Native American painters of the twentieth century were also sending work to the Trocadéro in Paris, the Venice Biennale, and beyond, helping to establish exhibition trajectories that artists of the AIM generation repeated seven decades later. Like the contemporary installations I discuss, their paintings simultaneously embodied and struggled against constitutive conditions of mobility. I argue that across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, expanded geographies have broadened the conceptual possibilities available to native artists grappling with displacement inside their nations of birth, while inspiring unexpected reinvestments in indigenous histories from afar.

Center 33 (includes image not shown here)