Who’s on First?
When I interned at the Jacobson House Native Art Center, I was instructed to tell visitors how the Kiowa Six were the first Native artists to exhibit and achieve international recognition in the art world, when they exhibited at the 1928 First International Art Exposition in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Although their European exhibitions were an important milestone in Native American art history, it simply isn’t true that they were the first. My copy of Tamara Leigerot Elder’s Lumhee Holot-Tee: The Art and Life of Acee Blue Eagle states on its back cover that Acee “Blue Eagle was the first Indian artist to actively pursue a solo career as an artist, dependent upon his artwork for his livelihood.” However, this is also not true. Edmonia Lewis (African-Mississauga Ojibwe) is the easiest example to refute these two previous statements, since she achieved remarkable success as a fine sculptor in Rome in the 1870s. But more importantly, Indigenous Americans artists have been trading their art work for tens of thousands of years, across nations and even across continents (South and North America and from Alaska to Asia).
Because so much interest in Native art flowered in 1930s, much of the art writing focuses on that time period and dismisses anything that occurred beforehand. I cannot count the number of articles I’ve read that present the Santa Fe Indian School’s Studio program as being the first Native American art program. Actually almost all Indian boarding school had art programs at the turn of the century and several date back into the 19th century. At the dawn of the 20th century, Quechua artists studied at the Escuela de Bellas Artes in Quito, Ecuador and several studied in Europe. But before these schools, fine arts were taught through master-apprenticeships and through families, exactly how they were taught throughout the rest of the world. Hopefully today, scholars of Native art will hesitate to place the word “first” before any achievement by a Native artist.