How We Perceive and Are Perceived: Memory Map, The Art of Yellow Quick-to-See Smith

- through Francois Leclercq

Published on

Coyote sees the world clearly. Charcoal drawing by QTS Smith, 1996. Photo by author

Yellow Quick-to-See Smith is an Indigenous artist and member of the Salish and Kootenai nations of Montana. His rich art shows a wide range of subject matter, including joy and lightness, as well as the dark depths of suffering, historical and ongoing. His work is visually and politically complex, and yet, as a viewer, I felt drawn in, never alienated. I wanted to know more about his experience, his vision in relation to the natural world, to ancestors, to cultural traditions and to our modern society. I found his work paradoxical, heartbreaking, but full of hope and potential. Throughout her many decades as an artist, Smith has also been an art teacher and activist. She influences the younger ones et older generations in a vital way. Even now, in her 80s, she continues to impress and is quite prolific in her creation of artwork.

His work is currently on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, providing impressive recognition for his long-awaited work. She recently said she could only imagine participating in the group show Venice Biennale, not imagining that she would one day have a solo retrospective. Having just encountered his works, I felt a great sense of joy for Smith and for me to be exposed to such meaningful activist art. As the artist said of his youth:

While working as a full-time artist, I have also regularly curated and curated exhibitions for Indigenous artists for over 30 years. One of my most memorable was the first traveling exhibit of Aboriginal women: Women of Sweetgrass, Cedar and Sage. After receiving the catalog, a woman wrote to me that she put the catalog against her cheek and cried. She had no idea there were so many Aboriginal women artists and she no longer felt alone.

(Brooklyn Museum)

Detail of a large quadriptych painting by QTS Smith. Photo of the author

As a committed Buddhist, I find it imperative to interact with artists and works that explore what it means to be fully human and alive today. Tackle puzzles such as the "meaning of life", how humans hurt each other and what is conscience; how consciousness includes both ultimate and relative levels, intertwined, is a facet of the arts. Art has the power to transcend these two levels and intertwine them, leaving the viewer or experiencer to absorb and metabolize what they want. It is a form of meditation in action and compassionate activity – to listen, observe or hold a space for dialogue with viewpoints that are familiar or unfamiliar to us, taking them into positive consideration. It is a way of looking both backward and forward in a linear timeline contained within the timeless mandala of time.

If the path of meditation is to transcend or free everyone from suffering, it is not a practice that we simply engage in for our own benefit. Engaging in the arts as a creator, viewer, listener, or participant is a form of meditation in action, where compassion for self, others, and our cultural systems is embraced in our bodhisattva vow. It encompasses all possible human emotions – anger and confusion, joy and grief – giving us a tangible path to walk on to communicate our needs and desires, our hopes and our failures. As we wish to know others better through their means of expression, we strive to understand them and therefore to take care of them – and of all relationships, that is to say sentient beings – in an ever more skilful.

Three drawings by the Artist, 2022. Photos by the author

As the exhibit documents state:

Smith's work consistently draws attention to the fact that Indigenous peoples exist and thrive in the United States, despite centuries of attempted erasure by waves of European invaders, subsequent generations of white settlers, and the policies of the federal government. She is convinced that her works should, in her words, “leave an imprint on the earth that says we are here. We have been here, and these are our stories. These are my stories, each image, each drawing tells a story. I create flashcards.

(Whitney Museum of American Art)

Go forward / look back, mixed media, 1996. Image taken from an exhibition video. On

Much of Smith'S's work combines painting, collage, lithographs, and mixed media to convey his people's interrelationships with the land, the elements, animals, and the experiences his people and the Earth continue to endure under cultural repression and brutality. Smith's way of incorporating humor, satire and layered meanings, as well as shapes, images and colors, gives his work a truly unique and expressive style. Smith's “driving concerns” (are): ecological disaster, the misreading of history and the genocide of Native Americans, but also the restorative power of kinship and education. Rejecting a strict chronology, the exhibition instead offers moments to discover the connections between Smith's images and ideas through time. (Whitney Museum of American Art)

I have traveled the world a lot and have seen art in many places. But one thing I almost never do is go on a guided tour of a museum or gallery exhibit. i guess i'I have always thought that I would rather let the works speak for themselves, make their impression on my heart, my mind and my visual senses without someone else's commentary. However, in Smith's show there was a tour going on and I heard the guide give detailed and fascinating commentary on the works.

He – and, indeed, all of the guides – had obviously been educated directly by the artist on what she wanted to convey verbally about her work. I was captivated by the speech. As we moved through the gallery, the guide spoke at length about four different works of art, encouraging questions from the group, sparking lively and deep conversation. It was yet another opportunity for me to learn something about my own learning style and predefined notions. In the future, I will pay more attention to the option of an excellent guided tour. It's liberating to overcome your own limiting beliefs!

No comment. Drawing by the artist, 2002. Photo by the author

Using satire and humor, Smith's art tells stories that subvert commonly held conceptions of historical narratives and illuminate the absurdities in the shaping of mainstream culture. Smith's approach significantly blurs categories and questions why certain visual languages ​​achieve recognition, historical privilege and value.

(Whitney Museum of American Art)

After seeing about 80% of the exhibit, way more than I had anticipated, I took the elevator down to the lobby, ready to leave the museum. One of the guides asked me if I would do an exit survey. I was happy to oblige. She asked many questions about my experience at the museum and about the Smith exhibit, which was the only one I saw. There were several other fascinating exhibits, but I couldn't add anything more to my emotional or mental palates. And in fact, I didn't want to disturb the mood I had been left in by experiencing Smith's moving and impactful work.

The artist in his studio. From

It was, and remains, an emotional journey, delving a bit into her experience and letting it sink through the layers of my ignorance and tenderness around issues of genocide, cultural erasure, and the domination of one culture over another. other. Given that I belong to the typically dominant white culture, it takes effort to engage in such works that evoke a painful collective past. Although I am engaged and deeply interested in Indigenous arts activists, it takes energy to engage with challenging material. Thus, self-care and replenishment are necessary. I didn't want to mix my mind with other artists or viewings that day, but just rest in deep awareness and appreciation of Indigenous voices and creativity. This prolific and impactful artist Yellow Quick-to-See Smith, with her very appropriate name, is an artist to seek out. Educational art such as his stands out as a much-needed antidote to the absurdity that permeates American political culture today in terms of the further erasure of vital voices, among them the natives, who must be seen, heard, acknowledged and appreciated for their unique human being. being.

Two multimedia works by QTS Smith. Photos by the author.
photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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