Connected \\ August 14, 2015

Benton painting Native Americans

The following is a condensed and edited conversation that took place inside the galleries of PEM’s American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood exhibition Thursday, August 6, 2015 with PEM’s Curator of American Art Austen Barron Bailly, Curator of Native American Art Karen Kramer and those who participated in the museum’s summer fellowship program for Native Americans pursuing professional museum studies. The 2015 fellows are: Halena Kapuni-Reynolds, Alex Nahwegabow, Ashley Tsosie-Mahieu and Jordan Dresser.

The conversation begins in a room with Benton’s series American Historical Epic, painted from 1920-28. The group discussed Benton’s depictions of Native Americans, specifically in Benton’s work Lost Hunting Ground, which was the last panel Benton completed before abandoning the series.

Thomas Hart Benton, The Lost Hunting Ground, 1927-28

Thomas Hart Benton, The Lost Hunting Ground, 1927-28. From the mural series American Historical Epic, 1920-28. Oil on canvas, 60 1/4 x 42 1/8 in. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Bequest of the artist. Photo by Jamison Miller. © Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Austen: The goal of this intro panel was to introduce Benton's American Historical Epic mural series specifically as well as the theme of American epics in Benton's art and in Hollywood.

To create a modern American epic—a powerful story portraying a nation’s character—Benton reimagined our country’s history. In his sweeping first mural project, American Historical Epic, he explored the European discovery and settlement of this continent, wars with Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans, and westward expansion. Through invented scenes and exaggerated figures he recast myths of the frontier, freedom, and progress. Benton depicted the inequality and violence in the American story while revealing the important contributions of ordinary people. In some ways his ambitions paralleled those of silent-film directors: to tell compelling stories through clearly defined dramatic episodes and technical and stylistic innovation. But Benton did not cater to the public with popular versions of American heroes and historical narratives. Instead, he responded frankly to the political environment of the 1920s, when the country fiercely debated who could be a true American. As he portrayed the past, Benton engaged with urgent issues of the present.

Halena: When you have that idea of the victor and the defeated... When people are coming from the background of being Native American or African American, some of the murals can be somewhat’s really playing up that storyline of colonialism in a sense. I remember when we first came into the gallery and came in the wrong way and we didn’t see any of the interpretative text. We just came into this room of these images and all we saw was a lot of depictions of Native Americans confronting Westerners. It’s supposed to be the first western arrival in the United States. The western figures are a lot more muscled and bigger in character at least in this painting. The western characters are smaller. He was trying to play with different levels of scale. Being the legacy of that encounter can bring a lot of emotions or meaning behind the paintings that may not be visible to everybody who sees the paintings.

Ashley: It depends on their level of education and art history. Yesterday, there were two younger girls and their mom here. We heard them say, “Oh, this is really sad.” They’re getting some sort of sadness or some sort of tragedy feeling out of this. I can’t speak to everybody though.

Installation of  'American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood' at PEM

Installation of  'American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood' at PEM. Photo by Allison White

Karen: When you all see the timeframe that the paintings were done in and also the scene that is being portrayed, do you think that the Native subjects are accurately portrayed?

Alex: I think it is definitely a romanticized image of the Indian brave. The title Lost Hunting Ground, that is sad. To see these images as a Native person, it’s sad. When you think within the context of America now, this kind of looks like a very sad, but almost inevitable thing that was going to happen. You see all this loss and then sort of wonder where are the Native people now?

Halena: It would have been interesting to have seen if Benton continued this series into the 30s,40s and 50s and see what he would have included in those portraits. Whether you would still see Native Americans within those images or if they had disappeared at some point. I would have been interested if he had done something in the 60s and did something about the annexation of Alaska or Hawaii or their statehood and how he would have painted these certain types of episodes within American history, but definitely a lot to think about in terms of Benton’s decisions.

Installation of  'American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood' at PEM

Installation of 'American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood' at PEM. Photo by Allison White

Ashley: You do kind of wonder what a non-Native audience sees with Lost Hunting Ground. A lot of people don’t think Native people are still around. So does it reinforce that idea that we’re just the vanishing American? But also he’s trying to show these different sides of history, but there’s more than just two sides. In displaying this romanticized brave fighting colonists, it kind of embraces, not intentionally, I don’t think, but Natives fought with French, they fought with the British, diferent groups fought with each other. It wasn’t always just white people versus Indians.

Alex: Just the image, the nakedness, the very sexy looking...the oversized sexualized nature of the Native American body is somewhat problematic and the fact that these images are supposed to be at the point of contact. You do wonder where are these people now. That’s the image people think of, they think of people wearing very little clothing, these bronze bodies. I think that stereotype is what people think of. I think they think of Native people as being frozen in time. And then they just disappeared after.

Karen: Do you feel like this is perpetuating that idea?

Ashley: Without context, I think so. Then you wonder what a non-Native audience will come in and actually read and will take the time to sift through and think about. I think context would have been really helpful.

Alex: A little bit more detail. It sounds like that panel would have been really helpful.

Editor’s Note: The following label was removed right before the exhibition opened:

Discovery, 1920
Oil on canvas
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri,
Bequest of the Artist, F75-21/1
This mural panel, originally subtitled “Symbolical
History of the United States,” shows the arrival
of European explorers from a Native American’s
perspective. For Benton, America’s contested
“discovery” symbolized how the national story really
began. To introduce the public to his in-progress mural
series now known as American Historical Epic, Benton
presented Discovery at the Architectural League of
New York’s annual exhibition in 1923—the year
before Native Americans officially became
US citizens.

Austen: The label recognized the fact that Natives were not citizens yet. That is a huge problem that Benton was aware of. One of the things that’s really challenging about this imagery is to think about the ways Benton is trying to subvert the top level impressions: the stereotypical body, through use of scale, through ending on something that’s perceived as very sad, but also with a question mark here. These questions had not yet been resolved in American society. I see it as a irresolution and ongoing as opposed to vanishing. Again, that’s an interpretation based on a lot of research into the time period. We try to show that Benton even posing that question and questioning the assumptions that...this perspective is not about celebrating the settlement and the pioneers making it west. That’s what Hollywood was celebrating. Again, if that subversion of those narratives, those ways of telling the story about westward expansion are not effective, that is one of the large reasons these murals were not successful. In their day, that’s what people wanted to hear. They wanted it to be called “pioneer’s triumph,” not “the lost hunting ground,” for instance.

The conversation moved into another gallery in a section of the exhibition titled Benton’s Westerns. A painting called Custer’s Last Stand was the subject of discussion.

This text is from the label for the painting in the American Epics exhibition:

Benton’s bizarre combination of poses lifted from old masters’ canvases, calendar art and Westerns serves to mirror, if not mock, the Custer legend and the gratuitous violence glorified in such period pieces as Raoul Walsh’s They Died with Their Boots On, a film from 1941. A clip from the film is next to the painting in PEM’s exhibition.

Installation of  'American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood' at PEM

Installation of 'American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood' at PEM. Photo by Allison White

Jordan: I’ve been here at Custer’s Last Stand. It’s a very iconic place where a pivotal moment in Native American and also American history happened. It’s a real heavy place to visit because you see the graves there. It’s rows and rows of fields. It speaks to this idea of people fighting for something, for a way of life that eventually changed. They were fighting to not be on reservations, but it inevitably happened. That’s Custer in the middle and he’s surrounded. You see Native dead bodies and, I guess, cavalry. To me, it’s a man fighting for his life but it doesn’t get the context of...I think that happens all the time. The title says it’s his last hurrah. What is it -- a win for him or a loss, or a win for the Native people or a loss?

Halena: Benton’s re-imagination of the past is in combat with the Hollywood depiction. In the movie, we see the Native people being shot  down. That defeated story, but this one is a little more empowering.

Austen: We’re trying to show Benton’s efforts to dialogue with Hollywood’s modes of storytelling in ways that are often perplexing. There are a lot of mixed messages. He’s playing to the American romance with this legend, which is partly why he titled it Custer’s Last Stand. His audience is a white majority audience. He knows who his audience is and the appeal of gratuitous violence in movies. He created a classically inspired composition. Mannerist bodies. No individual features. It’s very generalized. Benton is blending traditions of painting and high art with popular culture. He’s paying homage with America’s fascination with this legend that never seems to let up. How do you deal with these kind of legacies? He wants to paint what’s representative of American culture.

Installation of  'American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood' at PEM

Installation of 'American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood' at PEM. Photo by Allison White

Ashley: It makes you wonder if Benton knew enough about differences in Native cultures and people. He kind of has the mohawk thing going on when the scene is here, in the Northeast, and then here he is on the Plains with the headdress. I wonder if it was Hollywood influence or if he actually knew the difference.

Austen: He would have known. He did a lot of research. In his murals, he was very specific. If it is a reference to a Plains Indian, he had enough knowledge of American history and Native American tribes to suggest the difference -- but on a basic level.

Alex: He did pay attention to the headdresses and obviously this scene is in the Plains. But it is stereotypical image of bronzed, bare bodies. I feel like often if men were going into battle, they wore protective regalia and things to help them in battle and their horses would be adorned...they wouldn’t be naked.

Jordan: The tour I took was with descendants of the battle. They talked about the different horses and the Natives there and how it was a big battle and there was a lot of buildup to it too. There were so many things that led up to this climactic moment.

Austen Barron Bailly, Ashley Tsosie-Mahieu, Halena Kapuni-Reynolds, Jordan Dresser, Alexandra Nahwegabow and Karen Kramer

Austen Barron Bailly, Ashley Tsosie-Mahieu, Halena Kapuni-Reynolds, Jordan Dresser, Alexandra Nahwegabow and Karen Kramer. Photo by Dinah Cardin

2015 PEM Native American Fellows

Jordan Dresser, Integrated Media Fellow:

Jordan Dresser is a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe located on the Wind River Indian Reservation in central Wyoming. In 2008, he graduated from the University of Wyoming with a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism. He has worked as a reporter for the Lincoln Journal Star, the Salt Lake Tribune, the Forum and the Denver Post. In 2009, he began work as the Public Relations Officer for the Wind River Hotel and Casino in Riverton, Wyo. Dresser played a key role in curating a cultural room located in the hotel lobby called, “The Northern Arapaho Experience.” The exhibit tells the story of the tribe through paintings, photographs and artifacts. This new passion inspired Dresser to enroll into a Museum Studies Graduate Program at the University of San Francisco. Dresser believes this new adventure has brought him full circle to his original purpose which is to be a storyteller.

Alexandra Nahwegabow, Curatorial/Library Fellow:

Alexandra Kahsenni:io Nahwegahbow is Anishinaabe and Kanien'keha:ka, and a member of Whitefish River First Nation near Manitoulin Island, Ontario, Canada. She is currently completing her second year of the Cultural Mediations PhD program in the Visual Culture stream at the Institute of Comparative Studies in Literature, Art and Culture at Carleton University in Ottawa and studies under the supervision of Dr. Ruth B. Phillips. Her dissertation research examines Indigenous art and material culture from her traditional territories surrounding the Great Lakes region and focuses on childcare practices and the significance of family, community and youth. She has experience working with museum collections in her own scholarship, and as a member of the Great Lakes Research Alliance for the Study of Aboriginal Art and Culture (GRASAC) knowledge sharing project. Alex has a strong interest in stories, object biography and agency, and initiatives that aim towards community engagement and the Indigenization of museum and gallery spaces.

Ashley Tsosie-Mihieu, Curatorial Fellow:

Ashley Tsosie-Mahieu (Navajo) is a Ph.D. Student in the American Indian Studies Department concentrating in the area of American Indian Education while simultaneously working toward a Certification in Higher Education at the University of Arizona. She holds a Master's of Education degree in Educational Policy Studies with a minor in American Indian Studies and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Comparative and World Literature from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. During the 2014-2015 academic years, Ashley served as a Graduate Research Assistant at the Arizona State Museum working in three divisions: American Indian Relations, Education, and Exhibits. Most notable among her accomplishments in this position were assisting with the 2014 Neoglyphix Aerosol Art Exhibition, the 2015 Southwest Indian Art Fair Fashion Show, and the forthcoming Basketry Interpretive Gallery exhibit. Additionally, Ashley serves as a graduate mentor for Native SOAR, a board member for Indigenous Stewards Magazine, and holds two leadership positions in the Eta Pi Chapter of Alpha Pi Omega Sorority, Inc.

Halena Kapuni-Reynolds, Education and Interpretation Fellow:

Halena is a Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) born and raised on the Island of Hawaiʻi in the Hawaiian homestead community of Keaukaha.  A product of Hawaiian language and cultural education, he speaks fluent ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language) and is interested in studying the relationship between Native Hawaiians and museums. In 2013, he received his bachelor’s degree in Anthropology and Hawaiian Studies from the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo. While there, he was a collections management intern for Kamehameha Schools, the UH Hilo History Department, and the National Park Service. Currently an anthropology graduate student at the University of Denver, his master’s thesis research examines the curation of aliʻi (Hawaiian chiefly) artifacts at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum and the Lyman House Memorial Museum. Last summer, he participated in the Smithsonian Institute for Museum Anthropology where he conducted research on Hawaiian collections housed at the National Museum of National History.

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