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What's in a map? Jaune Quick-To-See Smith's "State Names"

Jaune Quick-To-See Smith's painting "State Names" uses a distorted U.S. map to explore indigenous heritage. The artwork highlights state names of indigenous origin, obscuring those with European roots. Smith's piece challenges viewers to reconsider history, identity, and the arbitrary nature of borders. The painting's dripping paint and black oceans evoke a sense of conflict and loss. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(light piano music) - [Beth] We're here in the Smithsonian American Art Museum looking at a painting by Jaune Quick-To-See Smith called "State Names." And you immediately recognize the outline of the United States, but at the same time that map is obscured and made difficult to read. So it's at once recognizable and not recognizable. - [Anne] Something that Smith does in her work is she works with these icons, these images that are instantly recognizable. But what she does with them is then she adds a twist. And so she describes her use of icons as a ploy, as something that brings the viewer closer and they think they know what they're going to see. And then, once they're there, something else happens. - [Beth] There are a lot of state names that are indicated here in this type that's large and feels very educational. But some are clearly missing. - [Anne] Some of the names that are present are obscured. And then some of the names of the states are miss altogether. And so one of the questions that often comes up fairly soon after you start to engage with this work is, why do we see the names of some states but not other states? "State Names" is a work about the etymology of the names of U.S. states. So the states that are remaining in the work, these are the names of states that come from indigenous sources. The states that have been removed, those are names that have European origins. - [Beth] The outlines of the states are largely obscured. - [Anne] Names are missing, boundaries are obscured, there's dripping paint. You get a sense that what we're looking at is a contested space in a lot of ways. And so when you see the dripping paint, what does that evoke? Is it blood? Is it tears? Is something melting? - [Beth] And we're reminded that these state boundaries are not ones that were at all relevant to Native American peoples. - [Anne] It does reinforce how arbitrary those boundaries are. Smith has said that her maps are points of departure for the political treatment of Native people. And she's also said that she cannot say strongly enough that her maps are about stolen lands. - [Beth] When I think about the map of the United States, I tend to read it the way I learned it in elementary school, from right to left. From the settling of the Eastern Seaboard to thirteen colonies and then westward expansion. So I'm immediately part of a historical narrative that looks back to Manifest Destiny. - [Anne] Even the term westward expansion is asserting a particular point of view. Is it westward expansion, or is it eastern invasion? Smith has said that she likes to use maps because maps can tell stories. So what stories are being told? Who's telling the stories? She's interested in telling a particular story from a particular point of view. So Smith has been a leading contemporary American artist since the 1970s. And she works in a variety of media. Smith is an enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation. She began making maps for exhibitions that were responding to the Columbus Quincentennial in 1992. - [Beth] So directly related to the beginnings of European colonization in North America. - [Anne] Smith was trained as an abstract expressionist. And we may think of maps and Jasper Johns. We may think of collage. Because what she has here are the names of the states, those are clippings that are then put over the paint, and the paint is put over the clipping. So we have these really rich layers in this work. - [Beth] "State Names" was created in 2000. So half a century after Pollock and Johns and Rauschenberg, artists who so evidently had an impact on her work. But she's drawing on that art historical, mid-twentieth century tradition to say something about her own identity and the identity of her people. - [Anne] Her work really challenges us to think about identity in different ways, about heritage in different ways, about history in different ways. - [Beth] I noticed too that we don't just have state names, we have the names of areas outside of the boundaries of the United States. - [Anne] The boundaries between states, it's a very arbitrary distinction as is the boundaries between countries here. And so while the work is called "State Names," we have the top of Mexico just below the southern border of the United States, we have the bottom part of Canada. - [Beth] It's interesting to me too how she's chosen to make the oceans black. That gives it a very ominous feeling to me. - [Anne] The dripping paint combined with the black oceans really does contribute to this ominous feel. Once you look at a work like "State Names," you might not think about the name Arizona or Ohio or Nebraska in the same way because you're thinking about the history of that name. When we think about our history in a different way, it also asks us to think about our present in a different way. (light piano music)