Redefining Space: Jaune Quick-to-See Smith’s Feminist Artistic Journey

mixed media artwork
Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Trade (Gifts for Trading Land with White People), 1992, oil paint and mixed media, collage, objects, canvas, 152.4 x 431.8 cm (Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk) © Jaune Quick-to-See Smith

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith’s artistic journey is not just a testament to her creative prowess but also to her unwavering commitment to feminist ideals. Through her groundbreaking work, she challenges traditional notions of space, both physical and conceptual, while advocating for the representation and empowerment of Indigenous women.

Born and raised on the Flathead Reservation in Montana, Smith’s upbringing instilled in her a profound awareness of the intersecting struggles faced by women and Indigenous communities. In the mid-1970s, she encountered the stark reality of gender inequality in the art world, where only Native men were given opportunities to exhibit in galleries. Determined to challenge this status quo, Smith embarked on a mission to uplift Indigenous women artists.

Drawing on her experience as a mother and her innate sense of activism, Smith organized Indian women to transition from trading posts to galleries and museums. This pioneering effort led to the formation of the Grey Canyon Artists, a collective aimed at promoting the visibility of Indigenous women in the arts. Through her tireless advocacy and organizational skills, Smith facilitated exhibitions both locally in New Mexico and nationally across the United States.

One of the most significant milestones in Smith’s career was the creation of the groundbreaking touring exhibit “Women of Sweetgrass, Cedar, and Sage.” This landmark exhibition showcased the diverse talents of Native women artists and provided a platform for their voices to be heard. The impact of the exhibit was profound, as evidenced by the heartfelt response of one woman who, upon receiving the catalog, expressed overwhelming emotion at discovering a community of Native women artists she had never known existed.

Smith’s commitment to promoting Indigenous women’s art extends beyond her own creative endeavors. For over three decades, she has dedicated herself to organizing and curating exhibitions for Native artists, amplifying their voices and fostering a sense of solidarity within the community. Through her advocacy and mentorship, Smith continues to inspire future generations of artists to reclaim their space and assert their presence in the art world.

In her artistic practice, one of the most striking aspects of Smith’s work is her innovative use of space. Rather than confining herself to traditional canvas boundaries, she embraces a multidimensional approach, incorporating various materials and techniques to create immersive installations that envelop the viewer. Smith’s manipulation of space serves as a metaphorical tool, allowing her to disrupt established power dynamics and challenge dominant narratives.

In her series of mixed-media collages, Smith masterfully juxtaposes disparate images and symbols, inviting viewers to interrogate the constructed nature of reality. By appropriating elements from popular culture, historical archives, and her Indigenous heritage, she dismantles conventional hierarchies and reclaims agency over representation. Through this process, Smith confronts the erasure of Indigenous women’s voices and experiences, asserting their presence within the broader cultural landscape.

One of Smith’s most celebrated works, “Trade (Gifts for Trading Land with White People),” (pictured above) exemplifies her adept use of space to convey complex sociopolitical messages. This monumental triptych combines painting, collage, and found objects to deconstruct myths of the American West and expose the systemic exploitation of Indigenous lands. Through her strategic arrangement of visual elements, Smith disrupts linear narratives of progress and reveals the enduring legacies of colonial violence.

Through her pioneering efforts to redefine space and elevate the voices of Indigenous women, Smith continues to leave an indelible mark on the art world, inspiring us all to strive for a more inclusive and equitable future.

Postscript: I created a drawing in tribute to Jaune Quick to See Smith. As a white woman artist, I recognize and acknowledge the complexities and tensions inherent in creating a work in homage to an Indigenous woman like Smith.

drawing of a woman
Sally Jane Brown: Tribute to Jaune Quick to See Smith, 2020

In my drawing, I embrace the use of space as a means to confront and sit with these tensions. Space becomes more than just a formal element in my work; it becomes a symbolic arena where I grapple with questions of representation, privilege, and cultural appropriation. By engaging with these tensions openly and honestly, I strive to navigate the complexities of honoring Smith’s legacy while acknowledging my positionality.

I must recognize and uplift women from all backgrounds in my artistic practice. By learning from the experiences and perspectives of artists like Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, I hope to deepen my understanding of the world and contribute to a more inclusive and equitable artistic community.

In paying tribute to Smith through my art, I am reminded of the importance of humility, empathy, and solidarity in the pursuit of social justice. As we continue to navigate the complexities of identity and representation in the art world, may we all strive to listen, learn, and amplify the voices of those who have been historically marginalized.