Native Americans in Paris: Oklahoma Painters Make Historic Trip

Eleven Native American artists went to Paris for an art show titled Oklahoma Painters, part of the sixth annual Art en Capital event at the massive Grand Palais.

All the artists who traveled to Paris were excited to see their work exhibited in the Grand Palais, but perhaps none more than Marla Skye. "I can feel my father‘s spirit all around me here," she said. Her father, Larry Jones, an artist and woodcarver, died unexpectedly in September. "He was so happy I was coming to this Paris show.”

Skye and her colleagues were in Paris as exhibiting artists—they were also there as art lovers. “It’s been amazing to see the work of Monet and Renoir—all these works that I had read about,” Skye said. Her itinerary included such traditional tourist stops as the Louvre, the Picasso Museum, the Eiffel Tower, and the Museé d’Orsay. “This has been a wonderful experience. I feel blessed to be here, and I thank the Creator.”

The eleven Native artists had come to the City of Light for an art show titled “Oklahoma Painters,” part of the sixth annual “Art en Capital” event at the massive Grand Palais. Skye and ten other Native artists were exhibiting watercolor and acrylic paintings in the Salon du Dessin et de la Peintre a l’eau (Salon of Drawing and Watercolor Painting) one of five legendary annual exhibitions drawn together at the Grand Palais. (The other four are the Societe des Artistes Independants, Societe Nationale des Beaux-arts, Comparaisons, and the Societe des Artistes Francais.) The exhibit was set up by curator Russell Tallchief, Osage, who is Director of Arts & Exhibitions at the American Indian Cultural Center & Museum in Oklahoma City, at the request of Ginette Adamson, a painter and former French Literature professor who divides her time between Strasbourg and Oklahoma.

The artists selected were, in addition to Skye, America Meredith, Anita Fields, Yatika Fields, Dana Tiger, Brent Greenwood, Dg Smalling, Joe Don Brave, Navarre Scott Momaday, Edgar Heap of Birds, and Tom Poolaw. The event, overseen by French Minister of Culture Frederic Mitterrand, ran from November 23 to 27.

For a Parisian public largely unfamiliar with contemporary Native American art, the opportunity to view the works and meet the artists was unprecedented. French ideas about American Indians, like those of many people around the world, remain associated with the “romantic” vision derived from Hollywood movies and the photos of Edward Curtis: Feathers, leather and face paint. Many visitors were taken aback by the display of modern Native creativity. “I am surprised by the great diversity,” said one. “These works are all grouped under the label ‘native.’ I am looking for a common touch in the paintings, and I don’t see one. Coming to this show, I had a simplistic vision, a fantasy of a single unified culture. But I see a wide variety in this art; these painters are drawing on their culture’s past, yes, but from modernity and classicism as well.”

Native American Culture and the French Surrealist Movement

French art lovers first experienced American Indians through the eyes of the surrealist movement. The poet André Breton, actor Antonin Artaud, and others cherished Native American culture: Breton became a kachina collector after visiting the Hopi in 1945, and writer-actor Artaud related his peyote adventures among the Tarahumaras (also known as the Raramuri, located in Northwestern Mexico) in his book The Tarahumaras. Artaud vividly described the profound feeling of wonder he derived from participating in their rituals; the element of the supernatural inherent to their world; and the link between the visible and the invisible.

“The French have an interest for Native American culture from the beginning of the 20 century,” explains Julien Flak, a Parisian gallery owner who specializes in ancient Native American art. “Inspired by Buffalo Bill and the surrealists, we’ve been drawn to pipes and Plains Indian clothing—whatever is evocative of western movies. We also have a female clientele, fond of small kachinas as colorful, playful, joyous representations. Of course, the auction of André Breton’s collection, in 2003, emphasized the focus on kachinas. But it is important to recall a fundamental difference between the American and the European approach to Native American art: An American collector will relate it to his own history, by searching for a sign of his past, and deal with his feeling of guilt that way. This is because a strong sense of guilt still exists in the United States. This aspect is absent among French collectors; we know about the conquest and the extermination of Natives. But it is not our history. Our relationship to that culture resides in the dimension of dream, of childhood. The movies we had seen at the time. This is how we know Native American art.”

Parisian writer Nathalie Rheims echoes Flak’s sentiments. “My kachinas are my friends; their presence is intense and positive, full of joy. They have a soul. After I was offered the first one, I bought a few from the André Breton collection. Each one tells her own story. As a writer, I reflect on the relations between the visible and the invisible, and I feel this special quality in them. Standing by me, while I write, they protect me. Kachinas are all I know of native art; my relation to them is emotional, affective. They have a real personality: like living persons.”

The Present

During the week of the show’s run, one could hear Parisian visitors trying to reconcile their visions of Native culture with present realities. “Are those paintings made by real Indians?” asked one patron, while another was heard to say, “I am very interested; but all I know of that world is shamanism.” Some expressed surprise at not seeing feathers and other “folk” elements familiar to them.

Edgar Heap of Birds, Cheyenne, who presented the painting “Smiling for Racism,” attended the Royal College of Art in London and has exhibited at the Venice Biennale, anticipated the locals’ nostalgic, limited vision: “I really wish to change the French stereotypes of Natives, as represented by Disney, or a romantic vision of Native people. And raise awareness on our culture. And I am not here just as a ‘Native American artist’: I am both Native and American. I do not choose the label of ‘Native’, as I consider it limiting. And there is no ‘Native America’—there are groups of tribes who are not united by anything.”

Even so, the visiting Native painters were united in their appreciation of Paris—exploring the museums and galleries, dining in restaurants, and just strolling around the city. The Parisian lifestyle, with its slower pace, its sense of leisure, and its long lunches (a Parisian custom) seemed particularly appealing. “It is my second visit”, recalls Russ Tallchief, “and I love Paris! I like the fact that people have a purpose, but do not realize it in a rushed way, like in New York: They take their time to enjoy a meal, and do not live on fast food or eat in their car on their way to the next appointment! Everywhere I go is aesthetically inspiring. It is such a picturesque city: I went to Notre Dame and the Moulin Rouge the same day! And the Europeans seem to appreciate native art sometimes more than people from Oklahoma, who are used to it, as it is part of their culture. The audience here has been intrigued and receptive.”

Dana Tiger, a first-time visitor, agreed. “Paris is a stunning place!” she said. “We went to Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Rodin museum. We walked on the bridges, ate in cafes—I am overwhelmed by the beauty. Everything is so ancient. It seems like people here care so much about what they do: the food, the buildings, the art. It inspires me to improve myself, and my art.”

Native Celebration at the Grand Palais

On November 24th, Russell Tallchief gave the French a taste of the real thing, performing an authentic traditional Indian dance at the Grand Palais. Tallchief, an esteemed Straight Dancer, is related to the famous Native ballerinas Maria and Marjorie Tallchief. Marjorie, in fact, was “premiere danseuse etoile” of the Paris Opera Ballet. “When I dance, I always think of my great aunt Marjorie,” Russell said. “Her influence has been with me all my life.”

In attendance was movie stuntman Mario Luraschi, who is director of the Wild West Show at Disneyland Paris, for which he trained some American Indian riders. Luraschi is among the most important collectors of ancient Native art in France; his ranch outside Paris is said to contain some 700 pieces. Watching Tallchief, Luraschi said that he has always felt a connection to the joy in American Indian ceremonies and dancing. “My uncle was a cardinal,” he explained, “and that did not make me smile at all! I would rather watch a Native American dance.”

What happened in Paris was a step in the right direction; the Parisians who visited the Oklahoma Painters exhibit at the Grand Palais witnessed art that made them question the stereotypes and clichés they have always known. New York-based painter Yatika Fields seemed to sense that change. "Art is an evolution," he said. "A process that goes day by day—it’s like history."