Are Indigenous artists responsible for educating outsiders to their work?

During a conversation with Tom Farris (Otoe-Missouria, Cherokee), I asked what responsibility Native American artists had in educating non-Native art audiences about the intention behind their work. Myself included. I was intrigued by one of Farris’ artworks which featured lettering I did not recognize. I asked, and he told me it was Cherokee syllabary.

I’ve begun asking this question more and more of the Native artists I’m fortunate enough to interview. Over the course of these conversations, it has occurred to me that Indigenous makers must take on roles – are expected to take on roles – non-Native artists aren’t. Those include the role of cultural docent, tribal historian, translator and tutor.

Is this a burden or an opportunity? Both? Neither.

I was intrigued by Farris’ response and wanted to share it, as well as the responses of other prominent Native artists to the same question. His response mentions Jeffrey Gibson (Mississippi Choctaw-Cherokee) who is without question one of the five most in-demand and well-represented contemporary Native artists among America’s premier art museums.

When (Denver Art Museum) presented Jeffrey’s exhibit, Jeffery took a really strong stance that he did not feel like it was his responsibility to bring people up to speed to understand his references,” Farris said, responding to my question about Native artists’ role as cultural educators. “While I understand the notion behind that, and the spirit of that, I feel like you’re not going to be able to communicate unless you lay that groundwork. Putting the onus on an audience that does not have access to the information because public education has failed to educate properly about Native culture – where do people get their education, it’s media, so it’s Westerns, and not Native-represented stories. (Native artists) have to (educate) because we’re fighting a narrative that we didn’t write. If you just put the onus on the audience to get themselves up to speed, that’s just not going to happen. I’m a realist enough to know that, and I don’t want to lose the opportunity.”

As a white person sincerely interested in Native American art and always looking to learn more, and recognizing the best place to learn more is from the artists, I appreciate Farris’ point of view. I also understand where Gibson is coming from. White artists aren’t asked or expected to be experts on the Pilgrims or colonization or their genealogy or explain anything about their work other than the work.

Here’s how Farris handles these inquires.

“If (non-Natives are) coming to the show, or they’re coming to talk to me and look at my work, I’ll meet them halfway. Thank you for doing this part and this is what I want to talk to you about,” Farris explained. “I think it is incumbent upon Native artists to be educators because we have to represent our own culture because nobody else is, or when they do, it’s not correct. It’s just one of those things where you’re going to have to tell the backstory with everything you do.”

Farris’ approach is based in reality, Gibson’s in ideology. Both are valid.

In an email interview with Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (citizen of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation) for her 2023 career retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the most prominent solo show for a Native American artist ever, I asked her the same question about the extent to which Native artists should bear the responsibility of educating non-Native audiences about the meaning behind their work. Here was her reply:

“No more, no less than what white artists do,” she replied. “They should stop treating us like ‘Aliens.’ We are looking for parity.”

She clearly falls on the Jeffrey Gibson side of this argument.

An education through art

Tom Farris (Otoe-Missouria Cherokee) artwork with Batman logo and 'Batman' spelled in Cherokee syllabary.
Tom Farris (Otoe-Missouria Cherokee) artwork with Batman logo and ‘Batman’ spelled in Cherokee syllabary. Courtesy of the artist.

I am enduringly grateful for the Native artists who’ve taken so much time explaining their work and how it connects to their cultures with me. I think about Eric Tippeconnic (Comanche) right off the bat. Wendy Red Star (Absáalooke). Bobby C. Martin (Muscogee). Nocona Burgess (Comanche).

I firmly believe the best way to learn about Native America is through Native American art.

I learned about urban Indian relocation in the 60s and 70s from Brad Kahlhamer.

I learned about wolves and ceremony and the connection of Ojibwe people to wildlife from John Potter.

I learned about nuclear bomb testing in New Mexico through an exhibition at the Institute of American Indian Art’s Museum of Contemporary Native Art in Santa Fe.

I learned about the origins of America’s horrific Indian boarding school program from Cheyenne ledger drawings. I learned of its continuing impacts from Shonto Begay (Diné) and Jean LaMarr (Northern Paiute/Pit River).

I learned about the California tribes and why they’re so regularly overlooked from Meyo Marrufo, Eastern Pomo and enrolled member of the Robinson Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians.

I learned about the deep family connections of Pueblo artists and the importance of pottery to these cultures and ways of life from Rose Simpson (Santa Clara).

And on and on and on.

The education about Native America I’ve received from Native American artists has been one of the greatest awakenings, one of the greatest gifts, one of the greatest experiences of my life.

I will of course never begrudge an Indigenous artist who doesn’t care to serve the dual role of tutor, but for those who take the time to do so, I can’t thank you enough, and will do my best to pass that education along through my writing and travels.

No Comments Yet.