CORRALES, New Mex. — “I’m listening to rain on my metal roof, so welcome, so needed, such a lovely sound, I’m so grateful. This is the season of migrating birds, and I am in the Rio Grande/Rocky Mountain flyway and I can hear the sandhill cranes riding the thermals with their warbling cries,” Jaune Quick-to-See Smith shared with me. “I run outside to watch them float with their outstretched wings. They are going to my reservation in Montana to nest for the summer on the Nine Pipe Reserve.”
Smith (Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation) has been a practicing artist for the past five decades, working in paint, print, sculptural installation, and collage — and now she is finally receiving a major retrospective, Memory Map, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York through August 13. The long-overdue solo show will present work spanning her prolific and poignant career. It aims to dig deeply into the rich aggregation and topography of Smith’s contributions to art, not just Native art, but the broader contemporary art canon. “In this long journey, it is step by step, hand over hand, something like climbing a rope,” she said regarding her retrospective. “A partial culmination of a life’s work. Few artists have the advantage of viewing their work in hindsight; this is the gift the Whitney has given to me and those who have followed my work. There is no measure for this; it goes beyond.”
Smith spoke to me from her studio in Corrales, New Mexico, a small community just north of Albuquerque, where she often starts her day with sound. “If I’m not listening to this music of the natural world, I am listening to [recorded] music.” Everything from Bach to Maria Callas, Annie Lennox to Radio Tarifa, is on her playlist. “This morning we [Smith and her son, Neal Inuksois Ambrose Smith] are working on a 6-by-14-foot map for [a project in] St. Louis. We will have a map and a canoe; we’ve been doing research on how many tribes lived in that area before the Great Invasion; so far we’ve found 27,” she explained.
In addition to gearing up for the Whitney show, curating a show at the National Gallery of Art, and spending time with her grandchildren, Smith actively works on projects to create community for Indigenous artists. “Neal and I purchased an old, small bungalow house to make a print and drawing studio,” she told me, “though I don’t like where the water will spew off the roof in a rare rain, so this morning I’ve been going back and forth with the contractor.” This studio will operate as a space for Native artists to engage with the printing medium. “We hope to make prints with Native artists that we can donate to museums,” she shared. “There aren’t enough places for Native artists to print and most cannot afford to pay.” Smith and Ambrose Smith want to provide a space for printmaking and cultural exchange, creating a community of mutual aid and art.
Much of Smith’s work addresses inequity, marginalization, and a forgotten dispossession and seizure of Indigenous lands. And, though things in the “mainstream” art world are improving, and exhibitions of work by living Indigenous artists are becoming more frequent, these museums and institutions haven’t always embraced art by working Indigenous artists. In fact, in 2020, the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. accessioned its first work of Indigenous contemporary painting to its collection. However, the idea of “accessioning” comes with a caveat. “What they [museums] do is they pay lip service,” Smith noted. “And if you actually look, really look, at what their budget shows, they don’t really buy a piece of contemporary [Native art]; they get someone to donate it.” Smith reflects that the same isn’t true for her White, mostly male artist counterparts. “They’ll spend the money to buy a White artist painting, but for us, they will just look for someone to donate.”
When the National Gallery announced the acquisition of Smith’s work, heralding it as the first Native painting, she thought, “I wouldn’t brag about that, because you know, they’ve been in business for quite a while.” She commented that she couldn’t understand the institution’s gross negligence of Native artists and its collecting practices of Native art, or lack thereof. The collection consists almost entirely of antique work from Indigenous communities, revealing an egregious lack of art made by Native artists active today, or even those still living. “I just didn’t understand that they didn’t have a Fritz Scholder or a T.C. Cannon,” she said. “I brought up Leon Polk Smith, and turns out, oops, they did have one of his, but because of the dust-up over having an enrollment number — like, this idea that if you don’t have an enrollment number, you’re not legit, no matter what your culture actually is,” Smith said, remarking on the complex framework around enrolling in one’s Tribe and the coloniality around blood quantum.
Smith has had to live this history, and notes how difficult recognition was and is to attain — not just as an artist, but basic recognition as a Native person: “Kids today don’t know what we had to do to get an enrollment number.” She describes the dire reality of living on a reservation: “It was like rats escaping a sinking ship. We were starving to death, so you’d move to go starve somewhere else, and back then — in some cities, they would bus people off the reservation and dump them in the Native Barrio to go work in the factories. So, you had Native people living in these cities, for like three or four generations, and some didn’t know at that point what reservation they were from.”
This sustained endeavor for acknowledgment and safety was and is visible even in looking for spaces to gather, show work, and express culture. During the time that Peter Jemison (Seneca, Heron Clan) had founded and was running the American Indian Community House in New York City, as Smith recalled, he constantly had to relocate due to rising rents and building ownership changes. It’s a struggle that sees itself play out continually in a late-stage capitalistic art world. “I remember traveling to these community houses, and they were/are exhibition spaces. I would bring art or send art to them, and then I would come to do a lecture,” she shared. “Pete would have to move at least every year for sure, from Soho to Broadway; the rents always got raised.” During this time, Smith curated and exhibited work, upending and unhinging the notion that Native people belong to the past, and creating an active environment for Urban Natives to come together. “I remember once, Floyd Westerman (Dakota) came in and we had a mini powwow,” she expressed. “I remember looking out the window at New York City and thinking ‘New Yorkers don’t even know that Indians are alive,’ but when we [the Indigenous community] have a place to meet, we just come out of the woodwork.”
In between community action and organizing, curating, and writing, Smith can be found in her studio trying out materials or reading multiple books at a time, currently including Jimmy Santiago Baca’s Singing at the Gates and Joy Harjo’s Weaving Sundown in a Scarlet Light. “I read Joy’s works multiple times; she is inspiration for painting.” For the artist, these worlds all intersect, and create a collectivity of experience, output, and return. Smith expressed that “being inside a museum is a dreamland; gardening, digging, and watching nature is my heaven; drawing, painting, and making art is my joy; having a dinner with a bunch of Native artists is pure happiness.”