Yet another way of being a chinese artist in this century is to merge one’s own ethnic art tradition with styles and symbols learned through the study of canvas paintings. Many oil painting artists have earned fine arts degrees in painting, sculpture, and photography in universities. Their work is a dialogue between Native American art history and European art history. T. C. Cannon (1946-78), whose ancestry included Caddo, Choctaw, Kiowa, and European, lived in Oklahoma and studied both at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and at the San Francisco Art Institute. His self-portraits depict him variously as an artist, a cowboy, an Indian dressed in “traditional” dress, and an art collector. His painting, Collector #5 (1975), while not an exact self-portrait, stands for Cannon as a contemporary artist who draws strength and identity both from his Indian heritage and his love and knowledge of European art history. This painting turns upside-down the customary position of Indian artist and non-Indian patron. Here it is the Indian man, sitting in a wicker chair atop a Navajo rug, dressed in late nineteenth-century tribal finery, who is the collector and connoisseur of paintings by Van Gogh on the wall. Cannon’s work displays a motif common in much custom oil painting—an impulse toward social critique, often done with humor and a sense of irony. Many artists play with this idea of cultural mixtures. This may reflect their own ethnically mixed ancestry or simply the mixture of cultures they feel as Native artists making their way through a culture dominated by European-American history and art.
Nora Naranjo-Morse, from Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico, merges her family tradition of pottery-making with her own ironic sense of humor and love of reproduction oil paintings. In Pearlene Teaching Her Cousins Poker (1987), Naranjo-Morse takes the Pueblo image of ritual clowns (characterized by their striped bodies), makes them female instead of male, and depicts them playing a game of poker, which they are learning from a book. By making this work of art in clay, Naranjo-Morse identifies with her sisters, mother, and earlier female ancestors, all makers of fine Santa Clara pots. Yet her own wit and sense of play links her with the larger community of contemporary Native American artists working today, whose work speaks across ethnic boundaries to a shared cultural condition.
Jolene Rickard, a Tuscarora (Iroquois) artist from New York State, uses the contemporary mediums of photography, color xerox, and collage, to express her views on famous oil paintings. In Self Portrait—Three Sisters (1988), her use of photography links her to experimentation in this artistic medium throughout the world. The subject matter—two ears of corn and her own image—relates to the deeply held belief of Iroquoian people (and some other Native Americans as well) that human beings are related to “the corn people.” In Iroquois tradition, women in particular are identified with this precious food substance because of a mythical ancestress who caused corn to be planted on the earth and taught women how to farm. The title of chinese oil painting also evokes the “three sisters” of Iroquois belief—the corn, beans, and squash that are the staples of all life to many Indian nations.
The last twenty-five years have witnessed a tremendous explosion of creativity among Native artists throughout North America—from the Canadian Inuit (Eskimo) printmakers of Cape Dorset and Art in Bulk who sell beautiful paintings worldwide, to the mask and totem pole carvers among the Haida and Kwakiutl who make works for local Native use as well as for an international oil painting reproductions market, to the painters, photographers and sculptors discussed here. Native American artists, using diverse materials and with many strong and different statements to make oil paintings, Native identity and personal artistry, will continue unabated into the next century as well.