Note: Originally published at Anishinaabe Perspectives on 2/28/2019
A few weeks ago, I was looking at my father’s art for an art project I’m working on and I was referencing the floral motifs he used in his work that focused on dancers. One particular work that caught my attention was War Dancers from 1964. I think when you look at his oeuvre of powwow dancers - War Dancers, The Chippewa Dancers (1968), The Chippewa Hoop Dancer (1968), Chippewa Dancer (1964) – the observer has a tendency to see the overall images and miss some of the finer detail in the regalia that the dancers are wearing. One is aware of the floral motifs but the eye wanders over them and doesn’t really connect with the detail.
It’s understandable since an observer is taken in by the rich array of colors of his work. Indeed, the color arrangements are unlike men’s dance regalia from the 1960s. What the observer sees is a rich palette of colors that forms the aesthetic of a modern Native American artist. And the results are colors that form and shape the regalia in brilliant hues.
In retrospect, his colors are something of a paradox, at least a paradox at the time the dancers were painted. Consider War Dancers. In this work, we see eagle feather bustles that are pink, green, and yellow-gold; green and yellow-gold eagle fans; and yellow, pink, and blue anklets which, at that time, were commonly white or red. Even in the roaches that, in the 60s, were red, we see an array of colors – reddish-brown, blue, brownish-gold.
And then there are the floral motifs. One might assume that he simply painted the floral designs that he saw at powwows, and that he used books that featured floral designs. However, he couldn’t really access books since books with floral designs weren’t available in the 60s. So, he had to rely on what he observed at powwows.
Obviously, he had a sharp memory given the floral motifs in his work. However, he was making his own floral designs based on the images that were stored in his memory. He was like a bandolier bag maker from the late 1800s and used paint instead of beads to make his arrangements. He had to adapt floral forms to paint in the same way that bandolier beaders adapted beads from the traditional form of quills. In this way, he wasn’t simply copying floral designs – he was creating his own floral forms.
One particular floral motif that caught my eye in War Dancers is a leaf divided into four colors that are separated by the vein in the leaf. It reminded me of a bandolier bag that features red and blue leaves. Those red and blue leaves have always mystified me. They are such a departure from bandolier color aesthetics.
How and why did the bandolier bag artist make such a departure? We know leaves aren’t a deep, solid red or blue. But this particular artist decided that they can be red or blue. Those red and blue leaves go beyond the norm of color used then and represent a step into modernism – at a time when modernism was unknown to Ojibwe bandolier artists. In that sense, modernism is the next logical step in art. This particular bandolier artist was expressing modernism in terms of color. Most interestingly, those leaves strongly connect to Fauvism although, as noted, such art was unknown to Ojibwe artists.
My father’s four-colored leaf offers yet another parallel in terms of color aesthetics. In his palette, we see an array of leaf colors – blue, red, gold. But the four-colored leaf is a departure. In this particular leaf, we see four colors – light blue, light green, yellow, and pink – divided by the vein. A variation of the leaf on a dancers’ armband rearranges the colors to green, yellow, light blue, and red. There are also leaf variations on the dance aprons including one with green, white, blue, and yellow.
Unlike the bandolier artist who didn’t have exposure to modern art, my father did. He was familiar with Mexican muralism, Cubism, and Fauvism. And he is, of course, considered the first Native American modernist artist. Yet, the four-colored leaf represents something different. Like the red and blue bandolier leaves, the four-colored leaf also intrigues me. It seems like a logical step for him to take, but what a step it was to go beyond the norm and create something new.
In hindsight, I like to think that my father was something of a visionary in regard to regalia color. At a time when these colors were virtually unknown in regalia, they have become common today. I’m not suggesting that he had any influence on today’s colors. In the powwow world, the vast array of brilliant, beautiful colors was the next logical step into the modern powwow. The four-colored leaf, painted fifty-five years ago, was a vision of what was to come.
Detail - Armband, "War Dancers," ca. 1964
Detail - Dance Apron, "War Dancers," ca. 1964
© 2019, Robert DesJarlait