Friday, July 29, 2011

Pow Wow

by Drew Martin

Before the wayward and speculating Europeans arrived in North America, art on this continent was decorative and ceremonial craft, which was very much a part of everyday life. Aspects such as tribal identity and preparation for various occasions had visually aesthetic details but more abstract ideas such as opposition to enemy oppression and the questioning of bloody sacrifices were not expressed in art.

The Spanish occupation of Mexico and the English settling of the East Coast of the United States created and fueled a new kind of inhumanity, which over the years has been responded to with emotive works in literature, music and the visual arts.

The difference between the histories of Mexico and the United States is enormous. The Spanish were conquistadores and from the beginning mixed with the natives. The situation up north was more complicated. The English "adventurers" did not want to be so roguish; they naively thought they would win over the natives and yet the end result was much more devastating to the indigenous population.

The profound divide was that the English not only oppressed the natives but also imported and dominated a completely different culture at the same time, the enslaved Africans. I am not sure if such an international human disaster with so many atrocious consequences has ever occurred in this tight a timeframe on one scrap of land: the establishment of Jamestown in 1607 obliterated "Indian" culture, slavery in the US started there with the arrival of the first Africans in 1619 and between those years tobacco was introduced to Western civilization, which stoked the plantation system and launched the most addictive and deadly habit of all time, smoking.

The dominant tribe of Tidewater Virginia, the Algonquins, were surprised by how submissive the first Africans were but could not comprehend their state; having been swiped from their own continent then packed on slave ships for the harsh transatlantic journey. The Africans had already lost everything and were all but dead on arrival.

The Algonquins skirmished with the English but also tolerated them to some degree, especially after the marriage of Pocahontas to John Rolfe, (ironically) the father of the tobacco industry. Shown to the right is a portrait of Pocahontas and their son Thomas Rolfe, painted during their trip to England, shortly before she died in 1617.

Following her extremely premature death, which contributed to increasing tensions with the English, the natives staged a massacre in 1622, which resulted in the wholsale slaughter of hundreds of colonists in a matter of minutes. England responded by sending over troops to comb through the woods of Virginia and kill every native in sight. Those who fled, moved west while the African slaves were left alone to bear the brunt of the English and their stifling labor system.

What followed was the worst of slavery and yet not only did the spirit of the slaves endure, it flourished like no other. The contributions to the arts by the descendants of the slaves is immeasurable and priceless. Much of the music, literature and artwork has a continued theme of struggle and opposition to established America, and rightly so. What might be felt as threatening is still the backlash of having been threatened. Likewise, Mexican artists have had a lot to say about the Western invasion. The first works that personally come to mind are the murals of Jose Clemente Orozco.

But what about native Americans? When I try to think about art that expresses their struggle I completely draw a blank. The images I connect to the "new world" atrocities are European, such as this hand colored engraving by the Swiss artist Matthäus Merian, from 1628, depicting the 1622 Massacre. For lack of anything else, I even gravitate back to the most obvious stereotypes of their art...beads, totem poles, headdresses, etc.

Why is this? Is it because so many of those tribes that would produce protest art were simply wiped out? Are there a lot of native artists that are dismissed by a trendy art world? Or is it something much more philosophical...that these cultures without written languages at the time or art beyond patterns and symbolic forms were not culturally positioned to express their woes in art. Or, even now, by doing putting on a show for the art world, would mean the kind of submission and compromise they have so ardently fought against for the past 400 years? Perhaps it is also because unlike the one-way fate of the Africans, the native tribes were already fragmented and locked in power struggles (which is why many of the lesser tribes aided the English because they feared the Algonquins) and much of the demise was due to their own immune systems, unable to cope with the diseases brought over by the Europeans.

Before the 1622 Massacre, the natives for the most part lived independently of the newcomers but would "show up for work" on the colonial one hundreds (precursors to plantations). They had breakfast with the English and then went to the fields...this is why the first attack was so successful, it was orchestrated to happen at the start of breakfast on Good Friday of 1622, at point blank.

Although the natives were fascinated by the phenomenon of writing they had no use for it with generations of codes and communicative nuances in place. On the other hand, the African slaves lived closer to the English/Americans. The English language was under their noses and their being denied its power made literature an explosive medium for telling their story in slave narratives and all the great novels that evolved from them...mainly because it entered the quiet reading rooms of the early Americans with a bang.

Language played a big part in slavery. The multitude of African dialects meant that there was no unified African language, so any hope of solidarity required a lingua franca, which had to be English...but first and alternatively it was song; invisible, free and undeniable. The visual arts took the longest to develop. The slaves' tools were just for labor. Art is obvious and hard to conceal. Additionally, art at that time was a leisurely pastime and reserved for the privileged documentation of pedigree.

Writing has a visual identity but you need to be close to fine print to understand the message and it takes time to decipher a passage. The message of a graphic radiates from its source and is immediate. This is where Kara Walker comes in, and is why she had such an impact with her early work. It was all thought, sung and written before but never so visual. It was an expression in hiding that did not come out until it was safe. Now it is applauded but if it were made in the time which she references it would have had fatal consequences.

I know there must be many native Americans who have written, sung and created art about their own injustices but where are those with the status and recognition of Orozco and the Walker? A disadvantage the native American artists face is that people really love the stereotypes. The image of the native warrior holds a special place in the world's mind. It is romanticized even when adulterated by European influences, such as with horses...pre-Columbian native Americans had never seen horses and did not know what to make of them at first sight; sometimes mistaking a mounted rider and his steed as one monstrous creature.

Most people around the world think the natives all wore headdresses and lived in tee-pees and ran around with tomahawks in their hands. Not only do they think this, but they believe they know it so when something disrupts that image, they do not want to accept it. Such images are popularized by the movie industry as well as staged photographs from the beginning of the 20th Century and are quite different from the original concepts of native Americans. At first, the imaginations of the old world were fed by the images of Jacques le Moyne de Morgues (1533–1588) a French artist who traveled to Florida, mapped the region and made a series of botanical illustrations and depictions of the Amerindians. Le Moyne eventually returned to Europe after relationships with the natives soured and he escaped a Spanish invasion. The torch was then carried by other European artists such as the Belgium artist Theodorus de Bry (1528 – 1598) and his sons who never visited the Americas and whose works were often adjusted to please buyers.