The new exhibition “Ascendant: Expressions of Self Determination” from the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma focuses on three luminaries of Native art whose roots are here.
The trio consists of Chef Terry Saul (Chickasaw/Choctaw), Walter “Dick” West (Cheyenne) and Oscar Howe (Yankatonai Dakota). All three men came to OU as GI Bill students shortly after serving in the US Army during World War II.
Part of their proud personal legacy with the university is that they were the first natives to earn an MFA in the United States.
Alicia Harris Ph.D, assistant professor of Native American history at OU’s School of Visual Arts, led a team of curatorial graduate students to bring the exhibit to fruition: Meagan Anderson, Danielle Fixico, Chris Tall Bear , Olivia von Gries and Nathan Young. “Ascendant” is on view until August 14.
“Our curatorial students were interested in thinking about the Native artists who were students here at the University of Oklahoma in the years after World War II,” Harris said. “We wanted to look at the social and legal conditions under which students come here,” she said. “Tribes were being suppressed, and in the art world there was a big push toward standardizing practices for native artists as a default for native art.”
The three “Ascendant” artists pushed the limits of what was expected in the period 1946-1954. In the late 1920s, OU hosted Aboriginal artist residencies for a group known as the Kiowa Six, which achieved international acclaim.
“The artists we reviewed for ‘Ascendant’ were making claims about their identity and culture in ways that we didn’t see reflected in the scholarship or talked about in that way,” said Harris, “thinking about the rights of Indigenous peoples and how this idea of visual sovereignty fits into the larger social and legal framework.
“Ascendant” is the third in a series of shows co-sponsored with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The first two were “Seeds of Being” and “Kiowa Agency: Stories of the Six”.
Harris consulted with museum curator Hadley Jerman, and they agreed that the subject artists were unique in their approach to art practices. Student curators had access to works from the museum’s collection, as well as assigned readings on the historical period of their creation.
“Then we let them run with it,” Harris said. “There were themes that, individually, interested them. Three of the Indigenous curators actually wrote about their home communities through artworks they were examining.
Self-exploration was fostered and encouraged as part of the project.
“Seeing to inherit this legacy of Indigenous sovereignty here at OU,” Harris said, “I was very pleased with how they did this. They put really critical research into the work and generated fascinating ideas.The artists have been the subject of much writing, but really in the latter parts of their careers.
Saul, West and Howe went on to distinguished artistic and educational careers, so much so that their early creative years are often only briefly reviewed. Howe’s lengthy biography posted on a South Dakota State University website doesn’t even mention that he took an MFA at OU.
“Some of the works in the series connect people across generations,” Harris said. “Thinking of OU as an institution for Indigenous arts is critically important to what we do. All of this combined makes me very happy with the exhibit.
Some of the art comes from the artists’ MFA thesis exhibitions. There are works by students of the three men and others from the period. Woodrow Wilson (“Woody”) Big Bow and TC Cannon are among them.
The examination of original thinking on the integration of tribal community practices into a modernist paradigm is included in the show.
The student curators made selections of exhibitions based on the subjects they were looking for. The heritage of the “Ascending” artists as well as their career development are included in the themes of the exhibition.
While still at OU, Howe submitted one of his abstract paintings to the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa for a juried exhibition of Indigenous artists. Her submission was basically rejected because it didn’t look Indian enough.
“Howe wrote a letter to the curator at Philbrook and made the bold statement that ‘I am an Indian, therefore the art I make is Indian art,'” Harris said. “Even if it’s abstract modernism. I think we still feel the effects of his statement and his activism for Indigenous artists. Artists are still struggling with this legacy.