On ViewWhitney Museum Of American Art
April 19–August 13, 2023
When artist George Catlin journeyed to France in 1852, he displayed his portraits of Indigenous people alongside teepees and Ojibwe and Iowan people at the Louvre. According to Catlin’s written and illustrated account, the living exhibition subjects were willing participants, eager to share their cultures with the exultant Prince de Joinville and his cohorts. A century and a half later, Salish and Kootenai artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith interpolated one of Catlin’s illustrations in her own print Survival Suite: Wisdom/Knowledge (1996). Smith’s juxtaposition of Catlin’s illustration with bodies posed to resemble ethnographic studies establishes her viewpoint that his exhibitions, which he characterized as educational, exploited Indigenous people.
Smith’s subversion of Catlin’s work defies the construct of “comprehensive knowledge,” or the Victorian assumption of a singular information system. Although Catlin purported to accurately record what he referred to as “disappearing” Indigenous populations, Smith argues that his perspective legitimized and contributed to imperialist scholarship and myopic understandings of Indigeneity. Survival Suite: Wisdom/Knowledge’s content and title assert that Indigenous people exercise resilience by countering knowledge, an abstract notion, with wisdom, lived experience. This print is one of over 130 works featured in Smith’s largest solo show to date, Memory Map at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Memory Maps encompasses Smith’s engrossing five decades-long exploration of maps’ potential to challenge comprehensive knowledge by archiving and preserving uniquely Indigenous cultural touchstones and phenomenology.
Five years after the Kootenai tribe successfully reclaimed 12.5 acres of their ancestral land from the federal government by waging the nonviolent War of ‘74, Smith documented the Flathead Reservation’s neighboring city Kalispell in a series of drawings, all of which deconstruct the theoretical map writ large. Kalispell #I (1979), for instance, reinterprets a diagrammatic map’s legend as a conceptual painting–population dots become pictograms of the land’s inhabitants (horses and insects), territorial contours flatten into straight lines, color-coded fields soften as earth-toned smudges, textures to convey mountains are simplified to hatchings, and route lines form directional dashes. Smith intentionally omits signifiers of the archetypal, portable geographic map, including closed borders (represented in Kalispell #1 as disconnected suspended lines), a scale, and a defined background, portraying Kalispell as a living ecosystem and invoking the selective and metaphysical impressions Kalispell left on her.
Smith’s more recent Homeland (2017) embeds the biographical properties of Kalispell #I in the framework of a continental United States map. Like a stone puncturing a window, splintering into a network of cracks, the painting’s thick white circles, which radiate from the Flathead Reservation, highlight colonialism’s pervasive violence. Smith’s painted marks penetrate state lines and the painting’s edges, calling the very necessity of borders into question and declaring the artist’s intervention in cartography’s potentially hegemonic applications. Similarly, Smith’s implementation of vertical dripping in State Names Map 1 (2000) distorts the boundaries of a map of the continental United States while obfuscating many of the states’ names, displaying in collaged form only those whose names were derived from the Indigenous tribes they disrupted or displaced.
In a conversation between Smith and Whitney director Adam Weinberg, the pair describe a tenet of Smith’s art as the act of “changing nouns to verbs.” In other words, Smith’s art aims to shift the role of Indigenous people as subjects that are mapped, or are the target of imperialist abstractions like defined frontiers, to that of mapmakers themselves. Smith’s mixed-media War-Torn Dress (2002) most overtly highlights the distinctions between the mapped and the mapmakers. Its dress’s contour is horizontally bisected into two territories (canvases), with the upper painting captioned “Your God,” tinged with red, and the lower painting captioned “My God” and tinted green. Smith’s identity suggests that the dichotomy of “Your” versus “My” should be understood as that of “colonialist” versus “Indigenous,” intimating the ways that an ideological imposition can be transformed into a practical geographic division. The paintings’ smudges highlight another distinction between “Them” and “Us”—the sanguine smears indicate the colonialist’s prioritization of seizure and resource overconsumption, while the green coloration implies Indigenous people’s understanding of the land itself as sacred.
As an exhibition title, Memory Map could appear paradoxical, given the supposition that mapping is an objective practice. However, here Smith argues that while the notion of shared knowledge is not inherently harmful, comprehensive knowledge systems are limiting. Her multilayered, intriguing, and cohesive body of work successfully advocates the synthesis of mapmaking with her approach to wisdom, which encompasses a temporality and depth that cartography alone could never plumb.