Reviewed by Anthony Ballas, University of Denver
Jessica Horton. Art For an Undivided Earth: The American Indian Movement Generation. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017. 312 pages.
In the shadow and in the wake of settler colonialism, a parallel shape of the world arose from the standpoint of Native Modernism in the late 1960s, 70s
The era of the American Indian Movement (AIM) was marked by a critical, social and revolutionary body of politics. In response to centuries of dispossession, displacement, broken treaties, boarding schools, legal and extralegal violence, AIM activists sought to raise awareness and modulate the continuation of these conditions of oppression. Activists occupied federal lands which had gone into desuetude like Alcatraz Island in 1969, had a stand-off with FBI agents at Wounded Knee, South Dakota in 1973, and, as the culmination of an organized march called the Trail of Broken Treaties, ransacked the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs office in 1972, renaming it the “Native American Embassy.”2 This series of occupations calls attention to the spatial antagonisms at the center of AIM, which in turn became inscribed in the aesthetic practices of AIM generation artists, “bolster[ing] and broaden[ing] AIM-era spatial struggles within [their] historiographical provocations” (2).
The book is composed of five chapters, each dedicated to the spatial praxes employed by individual artists such as Jimmie Durham, James Luna, Fred Kabotie, Kay WalkingStick, and Robert Houle. The first chapter surveys Durham’s life and work, reassessing the artist’s “formative role within the ‘AIM Generation’ to emphasize shared historical and conceptual terrain, rather than a cohesive or contested identity” (17). Late in the chapter, Horton anchors Durham’s aesthetic developments in the artist’s sculptural works and bricolages (Mataoka Ale Attankulakula Anel Guledisgo Hnihi [Pocahontas and the Little Carpenter in London] (1988), Current Trends in Indian Land Ownership (1985), and Tluhn Datsi (1984)) against Fritz Scholder’s Massacre at Wounded Knee (1970), writing, “[i]f Scholder’s canvases promise ‘real’ Indians, Durham’s ‘artifacts’ frustrate the search, leading visitors in an endless loop of imperfect information: too little to cohere, too much to trust… the materials circumvent the ethnographic promise of fixing Indian identity to cast into relief Western practices of collecting, ordering, and displaying colonized peoples” (32). Scholder’s Massacre at Wounded Knee is an expressionistic portrayal of Chief Spotted Elk (Lakota Sioux), based on the widely circulated, iconic photograph of the Chief’s frozen corpse in the snow at the 1890 Massacre at Wounded Knee. By “not fully resurrect[ing] Spotted Elk,” Horton argues that the Scholder keeps the figure “trapped in an impasto field of white splattered with flecks of expressionistic flecks of brown and red, dirtying the transcendent space” (29). However, in the opinion of this reviewer, Horton gives Scholder’s work short shrift: Scholder’s depiction functions as a kind of wake for the fallen chief; a dignified second death within the particular spatial and aesthetic parameters insisted upon by the artist, intended to counteract the colonial-era photograph of Spotted Elk’s downed body. Although Scholder may not have depicted the ‘real’ Indian as he claimed to have, he perhaps gets closer to rendering the Indian real—a kind of particular manifestation of the Lacanian real. Despite this minor disagreement, by contrasting the works of Native artists in such a way, Horton is able to avoid falling back into
In keeping partially with the theme of dance, Horton’s fourth chapter details Kay WalkingStick’s sketches and paintings which were in large part produced after her visit to the Vatican archives. Horton describes “art history’s tangled legs” (123) through WalkingStick’s oeuvre, noting how her “sketchbooks entail both the discovery and creation of resemblances among transformational beings drawn together in a nonhierarchical field of relations” and how they “reprise an imagination of the globe mapped through expanding Renaissance trade and conquest” (128).
In chapter Five, Horton transitions to Robert Houle’s installations and painted works, the portraiture of Eugène Delacroix, and George Catlin’s Indian Gallery, critiquing the latter’s “foregroun[ing] of the subjectivity of the painter, rather than the authentic natives, as origin” (160), observing how native subjects in Catlin’s work “became caught in a limbo of ontological uncertainty” (161). For Horton, Houle, by contrast, sought to ameliorate this uncertainty by filling in “what was missing from a dominant art historical genealogy, namely the agency of indigenous subjects and objects…[and] open[ing] up invisible colonial wounds for healing” (167, my emphasis). Horton ends the book with a kind of ode to stones, and thus to materiality as such, offering a poetic encomium thereto “as steadfast
From the contemporary matrix of problems facing indigenous people in America and abroad—Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women (MMIW), the Dakota Access Pipeline, the continuation of the degradation and conditions of deprivation of Native American life on and off the reservation, to alcoholism, and the disproportionate incarceration rates of Native people—Horton’s work accomplishes a much needed reevaluation of the art which budded out of the AIM and Red Power generation.3 With Art For An Undivided Earth, Horton asks viewers of indigenous art to reconsider the function of art and the aesthetic more generally; rather than limiting the Native perspective to a feature of Native identity, Horton insists that a universal view of reality is rendered accessible through the project of Native Modernism. In this way, Horton’s work is a valuable resource for advanced undergraduates through professional-level academics, but is a required read for anyone pursuing Native American scholarship in museum studies, archival studies, and art history, or any other discipline which calls for a deeper investment than the identitarian/ethnographic approach which too often reigns supreme.
- See Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, (Schocken Books, 1988). ↩
- Donald Fixico, Indian Resilience and Rebuilding: Indigenous Nations in the Modern American West (University of Arizona Press, 2013), 143. ↩
- Julie Buffalohead, member of the Ponca Clan, is one example of an artist whose works address contemporary conditions of Native life in America. Her recent work focalizes the figure of the trickster, offering a modern view of political and social antagonisms (ecological crises, gender, class difference, etc.) from the perspective of the trickster. For more see Anthony Ballas, “Eyes On: Julie Buffalohead and Eyes On: Shimabuku, Denver Art Museum,” Journal of Visual Art Practice, 11 Jan. 2019, https://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/SzJNh2k55N27WNphpcDZ/full. ↩