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Yellow Quick-to-See Smith on his life’s journey in art

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CORRALES, New Mexico. “I’m listening to rain on my metal roof, so welcome, so needed, such a beautiful sound, I’m so grateful. It’s migratory bird season, and I’m in the Rio Grande/Rocky Mountain flyway and I hear the sandhill cranes riding the thermals with their chirping calls,” Yellow Quick-to-See Smith shared with me. . “I run outside to watch them float around with their wings outstretched. They go to my reservation in Montana to nest for the summer on the Nine Pipe reservation.

Smith (Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation) has been a practicing artist for five decades, working in painting, print, sculptural installation and collage – and now she is Finally receive a major retrospective, Memory card, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York until August 13. The long-awaited solo exhibition will feature works spanning his prolific and poignant career. It aims to delve into the rich aggregation and topography of Smith’s contributions to art, not just to Indigenous art, but to the broader canon of contemporary art. “In this long journey, it’s step by step, hand in hand, something like climbing a rope,” she said of her retrospective. “The partial culmination of a life’s work. Few artists have the advantage of seeing their work with hindsight; it’s the gift Whitney has given me and those who have followed my work. There is no measurement for this; it goes beyond.

Smith told me about her studio in Corrales, New Mexico, a small community just north of Albuquerque, where she often starts her day with sound. “If I’m not listening to this music from the natural world, I’m listening [recorded] music.” Everything from Bach to Maria Callas, from Annie Lennox to Radio Tarifa is on his playlist. “This morning, we [Smith and her son, Neal Inuksois Ambrose Smith] work on a 6 by 14 foot map for [a project in] Saint Louis. We will have a map and a canoe; we researched how many tribes lived in this area before the Great Invasion; so far we have found 27,” she explained.

Yellow Quick-to-See Smith, “Coyote Made Me Do It!, II” (1993), monotype, 41 1/2 x 29 1/2 inches. Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts; gift of Yellow Quick-to-See Smith through the Smith College Print Shop. Printed by Maurice Sanchez; published by Smith College Print Workshop (© Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, photograph courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York)

In addition to getting ready for the Whitney show, putting on a show at National Art Gallery, and spending time with her grandchildren, Smith actively works on projects to create a community for Indigenous artists. “Neal and I bought an old little one-story house to use as a print and design studio,” she told me, “although I don’t like where the water gushes from the roof during a rare rain, so this morning I went back and forth with the contractor. This studio will function as a space for Indigenous artists to engage with the print medium. “We hope to make prints with Indigenous artists that we can donate to museums,” she explained. “There aren’t enough places for Indigenous artists to print and most can’t afford to pay. Smith and Ambrose Smith want to provide a space for printmaking and cultural exchange, creating a community of caring and art.

Much of Smith’s work deals with inequity, marginalization, and a forgotten dispossession and seizure of Indigenous lands. And, although things are improving in the world of “traditional” art and exhibitions of works by living Aboriginal artists are becoming more frequent, these museums and institutions have not always embraced the art by active aboriginal artists. Indeed, in 2020, the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC incorporated its first work of contemporary Indigenous painting into its collection. However, the idea of ​​“membership” comes with a caveat. “What they [museums] do is pay lip service,” Smith noted. “And if you really look, really look at what their budget shows, they’re not really buying a piece of contemporary [Native art]; they ask someone to donate it. Smith believes the same is not true for her white counterparts, primarily male artists. “They’ll spend the money to buy a white artist painting, but for us, they’ll just be looking for someone to donate to.”

Yellow Quick-to-See Smith, “I See Red: Trade (Gifts for Trading Land with White People)” (1992), mixed media on canvas, 86 x 170 inches. Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia; purchase of the museum in memory of Trinkett Clark, curator of American and contemporary art. Made by Andy Ambrose (© Yellow Quick-to-See Smith)

When the National Gallery announced the acquisition of Smith’s work, heralding it as the first Aboriginal painting, she thought, “I wouldn’t brag about that, because you know, they’ve been in business for a while. time. She commented that she could not understand the institution’s gross neglect of Indigenous artists and its Indigenous art collecting practices, or lack thereof. The collection consists almost entirely of ancient works from Indigenous communities, revealing a distinct lack of art by Indigenous artists active today, or even still living. “I just didn’t understand that they didn’t have a Fritz Scholder or a TC Cannon,” she said. “I brought up Leon Polk Smith, and it turns out, oops, they had one, but because of the dust on having a registration number – like this idea that if you don’t ‘don’t have a registration number, you ‘are not legitimate, regardless of your actual culture,’ Smith said, noting the complex framework surrounding registration in his tribe and the coloniality around the quantum of blood.

Smith had to live through this story and notes how difficult recognition has been and is to achieve – not just as an artist, but basic recognition as an Indigenous person: “Children today don’t know not what we had to do to get a registration number.” She describes the terrible reality of living on a reserve: “It was like rats escaping from a sinking ship. We were starving, so you were going to starve somewhere else, and at the time – in some towns they were busing people off the reservation and dumping them in the Native Barrio to go and work in the factories, so there were Native people who had been living in those towns, for about three or four generations, and some of them didn’t did not know at that time which reserve they came from.

Yellow Quick-to-See Smith, “The Speaker” (2015), mixed media on canvas, 60 x 40 inches. Private collection (© Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, photograph courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York)

This sustained effort for recognition and security was and is visible even in the search for spaces to gather, show work and express culture. Back when Peter Jemison (Seneca, Heron Clan) founded and ran the American Indian Community House in New York, as Smith recalled, he constantly had to move due to rising rents and changes in building ownership. It is a struggle that plays out continuously in an advanced capitalist art world. “I remember traveling to these community houses, and they were/are exhibition spaces. I would bring art or send them art and then come and give a lecture,” she explained. “Pete should move at least every year, for sure, from Soho to Broadway; rents have always increased. During this time, Smith curated and exhibited works, subverting and destabilizing the idea that Indigenous peoples belonged to the past and creating an active environment for urban natives to come together. “I remember one time Floyd Westerman (Dakota) came in and we had a mini powwow,” she said. “I remember looking out the New York window and thinking ‘New Yorkers don’t even know Indians are alive,’ but when we [the Indigenous community] have a place to meet, we just got out of the woods.

Between community action and organizing, curating and writing, Smith can be found in her studio trying out material or reading multiple books at once, currently including Jimmy Santiago Baca. Sing at the gates and Joy Harjo’s Weaving the sunset into scarlet light. “I have read Joy’s works several times; she is a source of inspiration for painting. For the artist, these worlds all intersect and create a community of experience, going out and coming back. Smith said that “being inside a museum is dreamland; gardening, digging and observing nature is my paradise; drawing, painting and making art is my joy; dining with a band of Native American performers is pure bliss.

Yellow Quick-to-See Smith, “I See Red: Indian Map” (1992), mixed media on canvas, 60 x 100 inches. Private Collection, Jackson, WY (© Yellow Quick-to-See Smith, photography by David Bowers)
Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, “Trade Canoe for the North Pole” (2017), mixed media on canvas, 60 x 160 inches (OZ Art NWA, Bentonville, Arkansas, © Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, photograph with l courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York)
Yellow Quick-to-See Smith, “War Is Heck” (2002), lithograph, photolithograph and collage on paper, 58 9/16 x 57 5/8 inches. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Dorothee Peiper-Riegraf and Hinrech Peiper (© Jaune Quick-to-See Smith)
Yellow Quick-to-See Smith, “Urban Trickster” (2021), cast bronze, 28 1/8 x 20 1/2 x 24 inches. Private collection (© Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, photograph courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York)

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