Knees and Aborigines
An online exhibition of work relating to the 1927 etching Knees and Aborigines, by John Sloan.
This site is the result of ARTH636, “Transatlantic Modern,” a graduate-level course offered by the Department of Art History at the University of Delaware. Generously supported by a grant from the Office of the Provost at the University of Delaware (the 2016 Provost’s Initiative for Excellence and Innovation in E-Learning), the course allows students to develop their own digital projects to explore an alternative presentation of research on artworks within the course’s scope.
For my digital project, I chose to create a virtual exhibition and accompanying website. This allowed me to explore how works of art could be thematically arranged and presented in an educational setting to the public, when the physical objects belong to a variety of institutions, making them difficult to bring together in the physical world. I knew going into this project that I was interested in digital curation, and the ways in which virtual exhibitions can overcome obstacles that would be insurmountable to exhibitions in the physical world. Having worked with museums and Native American groups interested in returning the ownership of museum collections to their originator tribes, I was interested in how museums can continue to engage with objects that they cannot physically display for reasons of ownership. I broadened this to objects that cannot be displayed because of condition when I learned about the Josephine Foard collection at the University Museums, which has several pieces in very poor condition.
Knees and Aborigines is an etching by John Sloan created in 1927, following several visits to Santa Fe. The work was chosen as the centerpiece of this exhibition because of it’s themes of viewership and connections. The etching shows three female and two male Santo Domingo Pueblo dancers, dancing the annual corn dance. The dancers are foregrounded by several onlooking visitors, including women dressed in fashionable “flapper” clothing and men dressed in the style of a guide from an Indian Detour company. More flappers sit on the roof above them, their ankles crossed demurely, but wearing dresses so short that their thighs are exposed, in contrast to the dancing women, whose skirts reach down to their calves.
Sloan saw women, and their shared cultural work, as a bridge between cultures. Many women from the East Coast visited Santa Fe and the surrounding pueblos at the turn of the century, as artists or collectors of art. Josephine Foard, an artist from Delaware, traveled to Laguna Pueblo, near Santa Fe, in 1899 to teach her pottery techniques to the local potters. Foard believed that Laguna pottery, which was often sold by Laguna women to tourists at train depots, could provide for the Laguna people economically, if it were improved to be of a more marketable value to white tourists. The work shown here is the result of her collaboration with Pueblo artists, experimenting with glazing and Pueblo styles of pottery firing.
In another Sloan etching, Black Pot, Sloan shows a white woman, in a wide-brimmed hat and knee-length shorts as if on a safari, purchasing a black pot from a Native American woman. Typically, work from the period showed white women leaning out of train windows to purchase pots from Native American women on the ground, such as in a common postcard image, or white women leaned over Native American women seated cross-legged on the floor. In Sloan’s work, the two women are on the same level, and there is little indication of the direction of the transaction. This leveling of hierarchy extends to Knees and Aborigines, where white women are arranged both above and below the Native American dancers, negating any clear hierarchical reading of the picture.
Sloan created an etching titled The Indian Detour in the same year as Knees and Aborigines. Although central to the composition and highlighted by the circling buses, the dancers in The Indian Detour are dwarfed by the scale of the etching, which includes many more tourists than Knees and Aborigines. These tourists seem to pay little attention to the dance that they have come so far to see – most of them are conversing with each other, dancing, or admiring the shrine to St. Dominic on the lower right of the image. In both this image and in Knees and Aborigines, Sloan shows that while the tourists seem at first glance to be viewing the dances, they are actually there to be viewed by other members of East Coast society, flipping the idea of viewership and tourism on its head.
Several indigenous artists painted ceremonies similar to those in Sloan’s etchings, with an analogous interest in viewership. Awa Tsireh (San Ildefonso Pueblo) was one such painter, who painted figures from ceremonies such as Zuni Shalako, which are considered sacred, and meant to be restricted. Modern artists such as Elroy Natachu, Jr. (Zuni), are still faced with backlash from the community over their depictions of the ceremony. Sloan was intimately aware of the work of Pueblo artists, including Awa Tsireh, who collaborated with several Pueblo painters on a Christmas card to the Sloans, featuring the faces of ceremonial dancers. The figure painted on the card by Tsireh is a woman wearing a tableta for the corn dance, which Sloan represents in Knees and Aborigines. By etching Knees and Aborigines, Sloan was engaging with contemporary Native American artists who painted the ceremonies for their own purposes.
Out of respect for those who believe that these images should not be displayed, the virtual exhibition includes blank spaces where the works of Tsireh and Natachu would be hung. These blank spaces allow docents and visitors to discuss the contested nature of representations of ceremony, while avoiding the perpetuation of those representations.
During the time that Sloan was etching Knees and Aborigines, the Hopi Snake Dance was the most widely depicted Southwestern Native American ceremony. The nine-day ceremony is intended to ensure rainfall for crops, serving an important role for an agricultural society located on dry mesas in Arizona. Rather than understanding the important social meaning of the dance, non-Native Americans at the time were fascinated with the Snake Dance for the danger inherent in a dance performed with live snakes. Several artists depicted the Snake Dance as a savage, uncivilized barbarism. However, when Pueblo artists such as Fred Kabotie drew the same scene, the danger and exoticism of handling live snakes was minimized in favor of a depiction of the solemn practice of a religious rite. Kabotie takes care to individualize the face of each of the painted dancers, rather than allowing the dark paint to obscure their eyes and noses as Sloan did. Sloan was visually interested in the boundary between “savage” and civilization, as evidenced by his suggestion that the non-native women in Knees and Aborigines are less civilized than their more modest Native American counterparts.
Sloan was also particularly interested in the religion of the Native American groups living around Santa Fe beyond his exploration of the ceremony shown in Knees and Aborigines. Sloan painted both Ancestral Spirits (The Koshare) and Dance at Cochiti Pueblo, larger scale works than his etchings, which exclusively showed the elements of Pueblo ceremony, without the emphasis on tourism and viewership found in his etchings. Both these paintings show the relationship of Pueblo religion to the landscape. The mischievous Koshare derive a sense of motion from the pueblo steps that the clamber over, which mimic the mountains behind them, while the Cochiti dance has already begun to succeed at its goal of bringing rain, evidenced by the gathering storm clouds in the background. The background mountains of these two paintings seem to have become an identifying feature of the Southwest in Sloan’s work, and are present in Knees and Aborigines as well. By including these mountains in both etchings and paintings of Pueblo ceremonies, Sloan ties the Native American religious practices to the landscape in which they are practiced, reflecting an interest in place and locality that was a strong component of many works by artists from The Eight.
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