Remember the profusion of American flags following the terrorist attacks on 9/11? Formerly a symbol of a patriotic right to many on the left, the stars and stripes suddenly became a symbol of our United States again.

Native American artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith questions this patriotism and the American identity in her lithograph, printed at the Rutgers Center for Innovative Print and Paper in 2001, “What is An American?” The wall-size print of a headless figure in Native American dress is predominantly black and white, but stripes of red, white, and blue gush from a hand that is tattooed with saints. The background is filled with other symbols of Americanism: Buffalo stamps, a hand and ears of Mickey Mouse, a pattern of paper doll silhouettes of a Barbie-like figure. There is found poetry in the cut-and-pasted words: “Get there faster,” “Americans have big ideas,” “Shopping,” “Profit Margin.”

“What is an American?” is among a group of large paintings and prints by Smith on view at the Bernstein Gallery of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, through Monday, August 4.

“In these paintings and prints, Smith expresses her concerns for our environment, corporate greed, consumerism run amok, and the rising gap between rich and poor,” says Bernstein Gallery curator Kate Somers. “Through humor and cleverly constructed compositions, her signature visual language uses a combination of historic and literary references, including American-Indian mythology, as well as contemporary current events, to make her provocative socio-political statements.”

The buffalo was an essential part of Native American life, used in everything from religious rituals to teepee construction, says Rutgers professor of art history emerita Ferris Olin, who has loaned the print of “What is An American?” for the exhibition. Olin spent four days visiting Smith on her farm in New Mexico, where Smith lives with two adopted grandchildren.

Native Americans used every part of the buffalo, from the skull and bones to the hide. Even the dung was dried and burned as fuel. Creation stories of where buffalo came from elevate them to a spiritual plane among certain tribes. Tens of millions of bison roamed North America at the turn of the 19th century, but after “Americans” arrived, the animal was nearly driven to extinction. Today the American buffalo has become a symbol of Native American culture.

“What is an American?” takes the form of a “parfleche,” or Native American rawhide bag, a sort of suitcase for traveling plains Indians. The parfleche was used to carry dried meat, tools, and items of value, and the hide was tough enough to be used as a shield. Geographic symbols decorate a parfleche. “What is an American?” has grommets from which it hangs, suggesting a hanging buffalo hide.

A prolific artist, Smith has worked in painting, printmaking, pastels, and mixed media. She embeds text in her work, creating complex juxtapositions that provoke questions about stereotypes and myths about indigenous people.

Smith makes her images by layering pictographic images, sections of Native American newspapers, references to popular culture, text, diagrams, and appropriated illustrations.

Another work, “Sissy and the Plutocrats,” is a variation on the myth of Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the mountain. In this painting we see a woman pushing uphill a shopping cart filled with a bag on which a girl sits atop. The mountain is a feast of melons, grapes, pears, asparagus, wine, and roasted pheasant. Also on a platter is what looks like a roasted rat — you can see its ribs, as well as the ribs of a mangy dog following the woman up the hill. At lower right, a man — a waiter — holds out an empty platter.

Says the accompanying panel: “A comment on the ever increasing class system in America where executives receive bonuses of 30 million dollars for one year’s service while the employees are expected to work for minimum wage with no benefits or their jobs will be shipped overseas. Yet help for the disenfranchised, the voiceless, powerless, impoverished part of our society is frowned upon.”

Smith uses the trickster rabbit in several of these works. In her culture, the trickster rabbit represents the good and evil in all living things. In “The Nature of Things” — a visual art work based on the book-length poem by Roman philosopher Lucretius — the trickster rabbit takes the form of Bugs Bunny intersecting with an image inspired by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. And in “Underwater” — a painting combining hurricane waters, loan predation, and bank foreclosures — the trickster rabbit takes the form of smiles and floating eyes of artist Louise Bourgeoise.

Smith “believes all things in nature and society are integrated,” says Kristen Accola, who runs Accola Griefen Gallery with Kat Griefen. Accola Griefen has loaned many of the works for this exhibition (formerly located in Chelsea, the gallery is relocating and presently has an online presence only). “She believes we come from animals, insects, and groundwater.”

“All of nature has an equivalency because it’s made of air, water, earth, and the minerals of earth, and there is a life force that blows through all of that connecting us together,” said Smith in a 2003 interview with Eleanor Flomenhaft, of the Flomenhaft Gallery in New York. “So what we damage eventually comes back to haunt us later. That’s a huge difference with European Christianity, which very definitely feels that humans control nature.”

Born in 1940 at St. Ignatius Jesuit Mission on the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Reservation in Montana, Smith is an enrolled member of the Flathead Nation. Descended from French, Cree, and Shoshone ancestors, Jaune’s mother left her and her sister with another Indian family when she was two. With their father, a horse trainer and trader — and binge drinker — she lived in California and then reservations and towns in Washington State. Living in a small cabin shared with another family, Jaune was beaten by her stepmother and her father.

Her earliest memories of creating are with mud and sticks — moss and rocks were her toys. “We didn’t have a home, and we never had enough to eat, so I was always making things,” she said.

The artist’s first encounter with crayons was in first grade, and when the teacher passed them out, the first thing Jaune did was to smell them. “I think when you are disadvantaged you always smell everything and taste it. It’s probably a way of testing it, and the first thing I did was crunching them in my mouth and I remember how un-flavorful the (crayon) texture was.”

Her father would draw pictures of horses in sand and on receipts. When she was in second grade, she learned to read from books from the bookmobile and hid in a tree or barn to read instead of chopping wood or cleaning the corral. Jaune had to work on a farm from the age of eight, but books opened up worlds in her head, she recounts in the Flomenhaft interview.

She lived in foster homes (during her father’s drinking episodes, when she and her sister had to fend for themselves) and went to public schools, where she was discriminated against for being American Indian. She was told that Indians couldn’t go to college, and that women couldn’t become artists. As a result, she learned to be resilient.

“She rode in the back of a pickup truck, beside the Mexican and Japanese farm laborers she worked with, into town to see a film about Toulouse Lautrec and decided she wanted to become an artist,” says gallery partner Griefen. “She sent away for lessons from the masters and took up smoking, as they did. But when she saw Ad Reinhardt’s 1940s cartoon series, ‘How to Look at Art in America,’ and found no Native American art, it became a turning point.”

Working at a series of low-paying jobs, Smith was able to put herself through school: first at Olympic Community College, earning an associate’s degree in 1960 (where she was exposed to Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, two early influences), then earning a bachelor of arts degree in art education from Framingham State College in Massachusetts in 1976 and a master’s degree in art from the University of New Mexico in 1980.

As Smith established an international reputation as an artist, she also worked to raise funds for scholarships and library books for the college on her reservation. She organized art symposia there and brought indigenous artists from Montana together with contemporary Native American artists from other regions of the country. Smith worked steadily to promote the artwork of American Indian artists by organizing artist collectives, curating exhibits, and giving hundreds of lectures, panels, talks, and workshops on the work of native artists at museums, universities, galleries, conferences, and other venues across the country. Smith is credited with increasing American understanding of contemporary Native American Art in the United States.

“She calls herself a cultural arts worker,” says Griefen. “She considers teaching non-toxic printmaking, advocating for arts in school, protecting petroglyphs, curating, and taking care of her adopted grandchildren and her farm all part of her practice.”

Today, Smith is well-known for the floor pattern she designed for the Great Hall at the Denver Airport.

“She’s beyond the ghetto-ization of being categorized as a Native American artist,” says Olin. “She gets us thinking about politics and art.”

The Tucson Museum of Art has called her a “postmodern messenger.”

“I see myself as a bridge builder,” says Smith. “My art, my life experience, and my tribal ties are totally enmeshed. I go from one community with messages to the other, and I try to enlighten people.”

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Bernstein Gallery, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University. Mondays to Fridays, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., through Monday, August 4. Free. wws.princeton.edu/bernstein.

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