Saturday, March 26, 2011

Dances with Cubism

Spirit Warrior on Horse
I am tempted to not write anything about Anishinaabe artist Frank Big Bear. His images are dense enough, it seems. My attempt to describe, explain, or somehow narrate would just get lost -- and justly so -- in the energy and color of his work.

But this is my blog, so I should write at least a few things. His images interest me in their own right, but they interest me also because they probably go against what many people assume American Indian art to be. If I told most people that I was going to show them a painting called Spirit Warrior on Horse, I do not think they would expect a work of Indigenous Cubism.
The images of American Indians that most people in the United States are familiar with derive from three sources: the photography of Edward Curtis, the paintings and drawings of George Catlin, and Hollywood movies.

Bull Tongue
Curtis was not an American Indian, but he left a legacy of famous and influential images of American Indians. His stoic faces, sometimes proud, sometimes tragic, still dominate the popular visual imaginings of American Indians. They even influenced the work of American Indian artists, and Curtis's photographs can be found in the homes of American Indians today. 

Some native artists have followed Curtis's lead, while others have challenged his notions of the stone-faced Indian, trapped in the past. For instance, look at this portrait by Curtis of a man named Bull Tongue.

Contrast this with a portrait by Big Bear. [In an earlier version I incorrectly described the painting as a self-portrait.]

Autumn's Wind
Both images feature an American Indian man staring at the viewer. Neither smiles. Bull Tongue appears as he might have before the white Americans ever moved into his neighborhood. (Richard Throssel photographed him in his day-to-day clothes.) Big Bear represents his subject (Autumn, one of his daughters) with some similar ready-made signs of Indian-ness: the long hair, the bear-claw necklace, the piercing eyes. A question mark rises from her head, and one eyebrow is raised. Is she asking us, "What are you looking at?" Is she asking herself, "What am I doing here?"

Despite some superficial resemblance to Curtis's portraits, Big Bear's painting is dominated by his Cubist tendencies. Whereas Curtis's images can be considered elegiac, Big Bear's are energetic.  Every inch of canvas is filled with vivid colors, dynamic patterns, and images of birds, animals, and landscape. The face may be stoic, but the canvas, if it reflects the interior of the American Indian artist's mind, is alive with pleasure, anxiety, movement, and meaning.

Anishinaabe writer and theorist Gerald Vizenor wrote that Curtis's images seem like an attempt to record American Indians at the moment before they were conquered and colonized. But those black-and-white photographs also were an attempt to erase those people and cultures, according to Vizenor.  The images trap those people in the past and deny their presence in modern American society. The past they are trapped in is ultimately not their own but the imagined past of the dominant culture of the United States. Images such as Curtis's became popular souvenirs of American history and mythology. Vizenor described them as "a cultural concoction of bourgeois nostalgia and social sciences evidence."

Images such as Big Bear's refuse to be trapped in that nostalgia. They are alive in the present. An image such as Spirit Warrior on Horse remembers a past before conquest, but it is not trapped in that past. It embraces the styles of Cubism, introduced long after the Indian Wars had ended. American Indian artists continue to evolve and explore new expressions, just as they always have. Big Bear's work is a testimony to that.

And his work just looks so darned cool.

I was introduced to Big Bear's work recently at the Native American Literature Symposium in Albuquerque, N.M. It is an annual gathering of people who study, teach, and/or create fiction, non-fiction, poetry, film, and art from Indian Country.  Big Bear's work was part of a presentation by Heid Erdrich, a terrific poet who has turned her talents to curating the work of American Indian artists.  You can see more artwork at the All My Relations Arts website. [A nice video about Big Bear can be seen here.]


  1. Cool work by Big Bear. I was not aware of this artist before the symposium either.

    I'm actually in a Native Modern Art class this semester taught by the excellent instructor and curator, Joyce Szabo, and I think it's worth nothing that Lakota painter Oscar Howe whose work was people considered cubist, argued that the style of painting that he did was specifically Lakota. His argument was that he painted in a style that corresponded with a point to point system that was done with prayer and song, similar to Maori ta moko markings on the body. This type of art was done well before cubism. That being said I don't think it's a contest about which came first, but more importantly I think it's interesting that Howe claims his aesthetic is specifically Lakota and not so much influenced by cubism.

  2. Good point! It would be fun to compare a Howe work to "Nude Descending a Staircase"! I thought of Oscar Howe as I wrote the piece on Big Bear. I believe his statement about his style being derived from Lakota aesthetics. Big Bear apparently has explicitly stated Cubism as an influence on him, and his use of color and the density of his images are definitely from Howe's.

  3. Spirit Warrior definitely seems to echo Picasso's style; Girl Before a Mirror comes immediately to my mind. Autumn's Wind, for me, seems to move in the direction of Surrealism. I am reminded of both Picasso and Dali works with that one.

    In any case, I love how they definitely do not "follow the script" as so often expected for American Indian art. Thanks for sharing this!

  4. just reread my post and man it's full of typos! I meant to say worth noting, not "nothing" and I need to take out the "was" before people. ugh need to edit these things! sorry.