Born in Oklahoma in 1898, the Kiowa artist Stephen Mopope was the oldest in the collective often referred to as the Kiowa Five. Along with fellow tribe members James Auchiah, Spencer Asah, Jack Hokeah, Monroe Tsatoke, and Lois Smoky — who was historically overlooked but is why many now call the group the Kiowa Six — he produced paintings of traditional Kiowa culture that were immediately successful in the art world. Vividly colored and showcasing scenes of life on the reservation, the works attributed to the Kiowa Six were among the first by indigenous artists to reach an international art audience.
A few years ago, seven works by Mopope emerged from the archives at Brown University; now, in honor of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, a selection is on view for the first time. The four paintings — each of which measures about a foot long— are displayed in a glass case on the John Hay Library’s second-floor landing. The dynamic, multihued pictures of Native Americans are an especially fresh sight in a hallway lined with stiff, formal portraits of white military men.
Library historian Holly Snyder told Hyperallergic that she was sorting through a drawer of unprocessed items when the bright paint and bold subjects caught her eye. She said the library’s cataloguer believes the collection was originally a gift from Mary Elizabeth Sharpe, a local philanthropist who launched various projects to beautify green spaces around Providence.
Rendered on construction paper whose various hues serve as simple backgrounds, the gouache paintings date from between 1929 and 1933 — after Mopope had returned from a short residency in the University of Oklahoma’s art department. In 1926, its director, Oscar Jacobson, had invited Mopope, along with four of the other artists in the Kiowa group (Auchiah arrived later), to refine his skills at the college. Mopope had grown up drawing in sand and later learned traditional techniques of painting on animal hides from tribal elders. He thrived at the university, where he was supervised and assisted, rather than directed, by Jacobson, and quickly developed a reputation as one of the most prolific of the Kiowa Six.
The four works on view at Brown showcase the most energetic of the library’s findings. Rendered in the collective’s typical flat style, they portray a man playing a flute; another frozen on one foot during a traditional dance; a figure praying to the sun; and a man swallowing an arrow. Although the images are simple, the details of each are stunning, rendered in fine, considered lines and colors that pop. The remaining three pieces, digitized during the library’s restoration, offer quieter views of reservation life: a gray-haired couple gazes at a distant point in the unseen sky; an Apache Indian poses in profile, showcasing his magnificent costume; and a drummer sits beside his instrument, facing away from us. Taken together, the works exemplify Mopope’s artistic sensitivities — how he was drawn to express beauty in both the exciting and eye-catching as well as the introspective.
The Kiowa collective completed a number of federally funded murals that emerged as part of the New Deal, including one at Northeastern State University and another at a post office in Anadarko, Oklahoma. In 1939, Mopope received his own commission to paint the walls of a room in the Department of Interior’s Stewart Lee Udall building. Like a frieze, “Ceremonial Dance” adorns the top of the white walls with animated figures in the middle of a hunt. Individuals crouch with shields or fan flames, all turned towards a seated man with a buffalo painted on his back. The action-packed narrative presents Mopope’s capabilities on a large scale, but his fine skill warrants close observation, too. It may be in his smaller, singular paintings that we most strongly perceive the unique spirit of his hand.