From Native American Studies:
Chapter 7: Indian Art
Glossary of Art Terms
Producing beautiful objects or performing in beautiful
ways is a marker of cultural identity that is still important to Native people.
It is in the field of aesthetics, the study of the beautiful, that Indian people
have demonstrated perhaps most profoundly their ability to survive and to adapt
their sense of innate beauty to new media in their own cultural ways (Velie &
While Indian art has multiple artists and thereby multiple intentions, the
Indian cultural worldview is the essence of Native American painting, whether
the style is traditionalism or individualism. All speak to an Indian experience
in an Indian idiom (Reynard Strickland in NAS 118).
There are regional, tribal and stylistic differences, yet
similarities outweigh differences so it is possible to make valid
Rock paintings are the beginnings or Indian painting, and remain strong in
contemporary Indian art.
Rock art is pictographic; the animals and objects are depicted in a way that is
more symbolic than representational (see Fig. 7.1)
Animals are stylized, men are depicted symbolically with sticklike limbs,
and trunks, and sunlike heads.
Coronado recorded seeing these in 1650. In 1805 Lewis and Clark gave Pres.
Jefferson a buffalo hide painting of a battle.
Hide paintings are generally pictographic, a "form of picture writing" in
which aesthetic effect is less important than conveying historical information.
In the early 19th century, Plains Indians had contact with American and
European artists and their style began to change, moving away from pictography
towards mimetic realism.
Indians artists still retain a good deal of stylization: they generally depicted
horses with very small heads and very long necks. Often the horses were green or
crimson, as well as brown and black.
When Indians were removed and settled on reservations, paper, particularly
ledger books, replaced animal hides. (see Fig. 7.2 by Kiowa artist
Silverhorn). This piece typifies the characteristics of first Indian easel
paintings in early 20th century: strong sense of line, careful attention
to detail, absence f background, a variety of colors, and a developed sense of
The ledger books were not trying to reproduce
photographically. These artists are 'reductionists,' painting symbols that go to
the essence of being.
Indian art may seem clumsy and ineffectual if the viewer believes the Native
artists is trying to paint a real horse in the style of a European salon
Indian art becomes highly sophisticated abstraction when the viewer understands
why the painter draws transparent horse stacked upon transparent horse. It is
not childish gibberish, but a language of philosophical metaphor, where the
artist communicates at a different level of reality (119).
Ledger art inspired easel art of early 20th century.
The Kiowa 5: these Oklahoma artists combined techniques of ledger art with the
Art Deco illustrative style popular in mainstream America at time. They
attended the University of Oklahoma and studied with Edith Mahier and Oscar
Kiowa 5 style: flat, two-dimensional pictures with 'opaque colors, clear
outlines, sinuous curves, and an emphasis on line.' (See Fig. 7.3).
The Kiowa 5 became well known in US and Europe and their paradigm become
dominant in the Indian art world, until Fritz Scholder and the Santa Fe school
began the American Indian art renaissance.
"Traditional Style" (Oklahoma) see Fig. 7.4: monochrome
background, symmetry and centrality of dominant figure, geometric patterns
evident in he plant life; more details in figures moves away from the Kiowa
simplicity of line toward more complicated patterns.
Santa Fe "school" also part of "Traditional Style". The "Studio School" drew on
Pueblo traditions which were substantially different from Plains Indian
traditions, with more emphasis on design and less on narrative
content. Pueblo Indians had a long tradition of sand painting connected
with religious rituals, but sand paintings were essentially designs with little
Dorothy Dunn (an Anglo) of the Santa Fe "Studio School" encouraged students to
get inspiration from abstract forms painted on pottery, figurative rock
art, and geometric beadwork and basketry patterns.
Santa Fe Studio style is dramatically different from the Oklahoma style. Santa
Fee artists typically fill their canvases with more figures, and use a great
deal more detail in depicting costumes, features, and things in the
background. See Figure 7.6 and 7.7.
Most distinctive graduate of Santa Fe Studio is Sioux
artist Oscar Howe. Began painting in traditional style but after stint in
Europe as soldier during World War II he got an MFA in painting and made a
departure to a style that looks like Cubism, but which he insists draws on Sioux
traditions (see Fig. 7.9).
Howe claims that his inspiration is primarily the Sioux trickster, Iktomi, or
Spider, and that the pictorial surfaces are a spider web. (121).
Indian Art Renaissance
Howe's student Fritz Scholder revolutionized Indian painting in the 1960s,
involving stylistic changes as radical as that of the European Renaissance from
the Middle Ages.
Institute of American Indian Arts founded in Santa Fe, 1962. Students at IAIA
established a style of painting that combined techniques of Euro-American
modernism with traditional Indian subjects. IAIA hired Fritz Scholder, who is
known for "vibrating color and messy gesture" along with a Pop Art
Scholder brought irreverence to Indian art (turned his back on "Bambi Art"), and
smashed stereotypes of Indians in art by shocking and amusing viewers and
forcing them to recognize that Indians are Americans living in the present
(see Figure 7.10)
Twenty-first century art has given way to Post-Modernism and often has a
political edge and is invasive (see Edgar Heap of Birds' Fig. 7.17). (126).
Relationship to land
connection to tribal traditions
relationship to nature in particular and animals in general
the cyclical nature of time.
From Native American Studies, Clara Sue Kidwell and