A Must See: Jaune Quick-to-See Smith traces her Memory Map at The Modern

When a retrospective of Jaune Quick-to-See Smith’s work arrives at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in October, it might be the first time some Texas patrons will have heard of the groundbreaking artist, activist, educator, and advocate. A citizen of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation, Smith is more widely known in the Southwest, as she’s based in New Mexico, or where she grew up in the Pacific Northwest and Montana, or even in New York City, where Smith has long been a fixture of the gallery scene.

But for those who don’t know, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith: Memory Map showcases nearly five decades of work in more than 100 pieces, charting the prolific maker’s career from the 1970s through today and touching on everything from land and cultural preservation to racism, politics, and the genocide of Native Americans. Her work is known to flip the script on what’s commonly thought of as Indigenous art, and presses its audience to question historical narratives and examine the storylines that have been taught to us.

Smith is a living example of what her work teaches. The history-making artist was the first Native American to join the collection at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and Memory Map is the first retrospective of work by an Indigenous artist organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. This exhibition was displayed there from April to August 2023, before coming to Fort Worth Oct. 15, 2023-Jan. 21, 2024.

“Even though we [the Whitney] have about a dozen pieces of Jaune’s on permanent display, there’s still this sense of discovering something incredible that others already knew about,” says Laura Phipps, the Whitney’s associate curator and organizer of this exhibition, in conjunction with curatorial project assistant Caitlin Chaisson. “Jaune has been taught in history courses for about the last 10 years, so some people may think they know her work, but it’s only a snippet.  This is such an exciting opportunity to introduce her work to an entirely new audience, or show the full breadth of her career to those who think they are already familiar with what she does.”

Phipps says that she and Smith had “a robust dialogue” when selecting which pieces to include in Memory Map, and that Smith was quite deliberate in telling the stories she felt needed to be told. Many of the early works, like Indian Madonna Enthroned from 1974, have rarely been on public view. To help patrons fully understand Smith’s “visual language,” the exhibition is organized more or less chronologically, beginning with 1970s and ‘80s pieces that form the building blocks of her work. Recurring imagery such as canoes, horses, bison, and flags appear, and Phipps says that years later she’s still struck by how impactful these icons can be.

“I first saw the canoe on a visual level, but as I began to know Jaune and learn why they’re used, there appeared this added depth,” says Phipps. “First, the personal: the canoe as a sign of trade. Jaune’s Salish ancestors were tradespeople, with established routes from Central Western Montana up through the Pacific Northwest and into Canada, and now she sees her work as an artist as a continuation of trade—trading in ideas, or circulating ideas like goods were in the past. Second, canoes connote movement and are containers, allowing her to explore how things move through space and time while being containers for ideas and issues she wants to talk about.”

Smith’s worldview is that of a nonhierarchical relationship between humans, plants, and animals, with no one person or thing carrying more weight than the other. Obviously, history has not always reflected this same idea, and Smith has been consistently highlighting these inconsistencies in her drawings, prints, paintings, and sculptures since the start of her career. Phipps muses that it will be interesting to see what context gets applied to Smith’s work in both Fort Worth and then Seattle, where the exhibition is slated to go next. History, politics, and attitudes are different in different parts of the country, Phipps acknowledges, but it was always important to Smith that Memory Map be seen by those outside the New York bubble.

“Of course, both Jaune and the show itself received lots of press attention [while at the Whitney], but a major success metric for me is just being in the galleries and hearing people respond to the work. It was so rewarding to hear from the guards and gallery assistants that visitors felt like they were learning while also appreciating the art. I’m just thrilled that Fort Worth gets to experience that, too.”

On Oct.10, Smith and Phipps will both be at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth for a special Tuesday Evenings at the Modern lecture. It’s a rare opportunity for patrons to hear from both the artist and curator prior to the exhibition’s opening.