Dakota Modern: The Art of Oscar Howe
Oscar Howe, Woman War Dancer, 1965, casein on paper. Oscar Howe Family Collection, University Art Galleries, University of South Dakota, HF OH 51. ourtesy of National Museum of the American Indian and the Oscar Howe Family.

Dakota Modern: The Art of Oscar Howe

Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR - To May 14

by Joseph Gallivan

The paintings of Oscar Howe (1915-1983) have a graphic verve and fluidity, with themes drawn from thousands of years of Indigenous culture. One of the most innovative Native American artists of the 20th century, Howe used Modernist techniques to depict his Yanktonai Dakota heritage and came up with his own brand of dramatic figuration and dynamic composition. This comprehensive show at the Portland Art Museum, organized with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, looks at Howe’s work over 40 years, highlighting his legacy of innovation and advocacy.

As a boy on the Crow Creek reservation in South Dakota in the 1930s, Howe was sent to a boarding school to be stripped of his Dakota culture. However, after the death of his mother, he spent a valuable year back home with his grandmother, who shared her knowledge of their heritage. This cultural grounding would influence his artistic journey. When the federal government established an art program at the Santa Fe Indian School, Howe was recruited and enrolled.

“That group really became the foundation of Native American painting of the 20th century,” said Kathleen Ash-Milby (Navajo), PAM’s curator of Native American art. In the federal program, students learned to paint traditional stories and ways of life using flat colors and an emphasis on line, with no modeling or shading.

During the 1950s, Howe adopted an abstract and more personal style, thus inspiring other Native American artists to break free from the stereotypical constraints of “Indian art.” One heir to his groundbreaking legacy is the artist Jeffrey Gibson (Mississippi Band Choctaw), whose multimedia installation, They Come from Fire, is intended to “serve as a bridge between the museum’s contem- porary and Native American art collections.”


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