I was troubled on a March 2023 visit to the Briscoe Western Art Museum in San Antonio. Three-quarters of the artworks on view featured Native Americans and not 10 percent of the artists were Native.
That isn’t unusual when you look at the Western art magazines, Western art galleries or museums, particularly other private art museums which draw their works largely come from the collection of one or a small group of individuals like the Briscoe. I’ve experienced the same disturbance at the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg, Florida, Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West and at the Whitney Western Art Museum at Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, WY.
Each of them are filled with depictions of Native people by white artists, but the disparity felt especially glaring at the Briscoe, where the walls are covered with non-Natives painting Native people. Thinking back, the only other Native artist on display along with a number of Allan Houser (Chiricahua Apache) sculptures was a Doug Hyde (Nez Perce, Assiniboine, Chippewa) sculpture.
Inexplicably, what I didn’t see at the Briscoe that I’ve seen at every other art museum I’ve ever been to – dozens – is any mention of tribal affiliation on information labels for artworks by Native artists. Native artists were labeled same as white artists, as if their tribal affiliation was irrelevant, their backgrounds living the material they were presenting of no consequence to the finished product.
That’s outrageous and more than mere oversight or ignorance. Literally every other top museum in the U.S. denotes tribal affiliation when listing Native artists. For the Briscoe not to do so was a conscious choice. I can’t think of one good reason to omit that information, but can surmise a dozen ugly ones.
I am not long into my art journey. I only became seriously interested in looking at art around 2015. I was just past my 40th birthday. I didn’t start writing about art until 2018. In the years since, attempting to highlight Native American art and artists while simultaneously trying to learn about both myself has become a primary focus of my now-career.
The more I see non-Native people depicting Native subject matter in artworks, the more it bothers me.
Buy Native Art!
For one thing, there are countless brilliant Native artists working today producing the same imagery as the white artists. It’s not like white artists are filling a shortage. Many of the white artists are spectacularly talented, the artworks are beautiful, that’s not where my disturbance lies. My problem lies with promoting the work of non-Native artists over the equally – or superior – work of Native artists, specifically in the depiction of Native people or subjects.
Landscapes, wildlife art, still lives, have at it – white, Black, Asian, Native, Latinx, whatever – but when painting or sculpting Native people, artworks from Native people should take priority.
Adding insult to injury, Native artists often, unfortunately, sell their work at a fraction of the cost because they don’t have the gallery or publicity machinery behind them driving up prices.
White Artists Portraying Native Imagery
I have spoken often to Native artists to hear their opinions of white artists depicting Native imagery.
Secondly, I’m beginning to question more and more whether these are the stories for white people to share – specifically depicting Native American ceremonies, spirituality, etc. I thought John Potter (Ojibwe) put it best when speaking to him about the subject.
“I’m not a Christian, I’m not a Catholic, I would never dare dream of depicting a Catholic ceremony in my painting and yet a lot of non-Native artists just run rampant with that kind of stuff,” he said. “You see Native people with pipes and eagle feather fans and holding up buffalo skulls and things like that; I really feel like that’s just rude and arrogant.”
Paintings of dance ceremonies, prayers and the interiors of sacred spaces, good taste should place that clearly off limits to non-Native artists. Not that it ever has. That practice was common in the 19th century and continued on through the spectacularly talented and successful Taos Founders who helped form the backbone of Western art as we know it.
I have some grace toward these white artists working at the turn of the 20th century – some, not complete – with their depictions of Native people because there weren’t many Native artists producing for the market at the time, but 100 years later, I’d like to think collective perspectives of the need and ethics of doing so has changed.
One look at the news, however, and it could be argued the nation’s collective perspectives have changed little toward the side of equality, progress, fairness and respect for Native people over the past century.
Soaked in Stereotypes
Thirdly, non-Native depictions of Native people in artwork, historically especially, but still today, lean toward stereotype and objectification. The comely Indian maiden. The savage warrior.
On a visit to the James Museum pre-COVID, I don’t remember the exact date anymore, the majority of the artworks showing Native American people by white artists had the Native people engaged in some kind of violence. Violence against each other. Violence against whites.
The repetition of this narrow theme caught my eye even as a neophyte connoisseur. None of the artworks in the museum by Native people – of which there is a great deal of extraordinary quality – was similarly focused.
The white gaze and white prejudices strike again, marginalizing “Indians” as warlike or naïve. Unpardonable for the late 20th century let alone the 21st.
You’ll Regret it… or you Should
I will admit my hands are not entirely clean. One of the first “real” artworks I ever purchased was a cast of Frederic Remington’s Cheyenne sculpture. I also purchased a watercolor painting of a Native American chief by a non-Native artist.
I loved both pieces when I first acquired them, but I no longer do. If I could, I’d sell them both.
I don’t regret the purchases, however, because I realize they were part of my collecting journey. They were lessons. I was only a couple years into my art journey when I bought them and didn’t know better.
Since those misguided purchases, I have bought numerous artworks from Native artists, and no artworks depicting Native imagery from non-Natives. I learned. My collecting evolved. My perspective progressed.
What’s the excuse for Tom James, former head at Raymond James financial, for continuing to purchase artwork depicting Native imagery – stereotypically doing so, at that – decades into his collecting? Worse still, he was likely working with a consultant on these big money purchases.
Same goes for the founders of the Briscoe or Western Spirit, apex collectors in the Western/Native art ecosystem spending hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars a year, supposedly the most learned and important collectors?
They should know better.
The question is, are they simply ignorant to the talents and existence of Native artists? That can’t be as their collections do have some of that material, and some of the best of it. Or, worse, are they prejudicing Native artists in favor of white artists because of… market forces, unconscious bias, racism?
If you can think of another reason, I’m all ears. Tell me why these super collectors kept buying more artwork depicting Native Americans from white artists than they do Native artists?
WYLD Gallery Native American Art
I would never again consider purchasing a piece of art depicting Native American imagery from a non-Native artist and you shouldn’t either. You’ll regret it. You’ll look back and shake your head wondering what you were thinking, like I have.
Not only is the work often superior – and less expensive – when you purchase direct from a Native artist or a gallery representing Native artists, you know you are supporting a Native artist. You are supporting a Native family. You are directly helping, in some small way, the continuation of that culture, a culture – regardless of which of the 500+ Native tribes and nations in the U.S. the artist represents – that has survived an attempted genocide.
You should feel good about buying artwork from Native people.
My friends at WYLD Gallery in Austin and online have been tremendously helpful in supporting my efforts to learn more about Native American art. Profiling their artists has been one of the great joys of my career.
WYLD Gallery exclusively represents Native American artists and makes a great starting point or turning point for your personal collection.Indigenous artJohn PotterWYLD Gallery
What do you think?