Native art is too often portrayed as an ancient practice and displayed as the archaeological discovery of a people that only existed in the past. When thinking of notable Native Americans, many people think of warriors or ambassadors hundreds of years ago who were only famous for their relationships with European settlers… and maybe Sherman Alexie. “T.C. Cannon: At the Edge of America” at the Peabody Essex Museum hopes to change that.
Tommy Wayne Cannon was a young Kiowa and Caddo painter of the 1970s, interweaving history, Native culture, blues music and classical themes in art until his death in a car accident at age 31. His artistry is a mix of music, poetry, sketches and paintings, all of which are on display an an epic showcase of Cannon’s short but prolific life as an artist. His life as an artist also reflected his life as an American and all the complexities that identity carried with it. His paintings show a clear knowledge of old Native American history and his subsequent dislike of the federal government, as well as references to his deployment to Vietnam from 1967 to 1968, at the height of the violence. Conflicted over fighting for a country that had only mistreated his own people (which earned him two Bronze Star Medals), Cannon painted scenes of honor and frustration, past and present, European and Native themes.
Cannon’s style is notable for his rich use of color and abstraction: like pop punk, but with a purpose. One of his most famous paintings, “Two Guns Arikara” (1974-1977), depicts a regal-looking man made of and surrounded by such vibrant colors that the viewer might not notice that he’s wearing a U.S. Military Scout uniform and Native accessories — or that his hair is purple. The stature of the subject suggests famous photographs of Native American warriors, like those of Geronimo or Sitting Bull, and “noble savage” imagery. However, this man is wearing a defiant scowl and clutching pistols in each hand, suggesting a nobility that is bright, front-and-center and not to be messed with.
Many of Cannon’s works are portraits, putting Native American identity and humanity at the forefront. Some of the boldest, most moving examples are “Minnesota Sioux I” (1970s),”Rain Priest” (1973) and “His Hair Flows Like a River” (1973-1977). In a similar vein to his more general portraits, “Washington Landscape with Peace Medal Indian” (1976) depicts a tribal leader sitting in Washington, D.C., based on real-life delegation photographs of significant Native leaders during the treaty rights negotiations of the 19th century. Cannon’s leader has a feather in his hair and a stove-pipe hat that recalls Abraham Lincoln’s in his lap, and the massive peace medal on his chest is out of focus and dull compared to the vibrant colors of the walls and Indian’s clothing. He looks regal but unhappy. The perspective of the scene puts the leader’s legs and lap thrust forward and out of scale with the head, small and leaned back, with only the prominent, wrinkled expression on his face to bring it forward again. Looming in the background is the White House, visible only through a single side window in the closed-off room.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Cannon’s art is the breadth of influences and motifs he employs in his art. Vincent Van Gogh’s “Wheat Fields” series (1885-1890) was a clear influence, as Cannon uses similar textures and color play in many of his works, including “Abbi of Bacabi” (1978) and “Mona Lisa Must’ve Had the Hiway Blues” (1973), a loving tribute to his college crush. Cannon takes on the 19th century trend of Orientalist nudity and harem scenes in “Collector #3” (1974), depicting a Native woman instead of a vaguely Middle Eastern one, with one of his own drawings, “Minnesota Sious I” hanging on the wall. Two portraits of women, “Hopi with Manta” (1978) and “Woman at the Window” (1978), recall self-portraits of Frida Kahlo, the iconic Mexican artist. “Woman at the Window” in particular employs the surrealism and contrast of Kahlo’s work. The woman’s face is full of fury and staring strait at the viewer; she is clad in traditional Native American dress, has a cross on her necklace, and her forehead is streaming blood from an unknown wound. One of Cannon’s most striking works is “Cloud Madonna” (1975), his take on a Native American Virgin Mary. She is dressed in a blue shawl, as she is traditionally depicted in European art, and the cloud in the background and vessel on her head form halos.
Cannon’s references to pop culture or contemporary politics are typically centered around the Vietnam War, which he served in. This exhibit includes a posthumous edition of his famous sketch “On Drinkin’ Beer in Vietnam in 1967” (1967-1969) and other minor works, flanked by editions of Cannon’s personal letters home from the war. These letters, as well as some of Cannon’s poetry depicted alongside his pieces, indicate a fluidity with language as well as with paint. In one letter to his friend Neff, Cannon writes “I’m so goddamn sick of this whole scene about this war and the supposed peace talks and dead negroes and looting negroes and pee-rejudiced peons from Mississippi who think they’re gonna go to a segregated heaven.”
The exhibition is peppered with anecdotes and little-known facts about legislation and Native rights; for example, Native people were only allowed by law to openly practice their religion in 1978, three months after Cannon’s death. The exhibit also includes a statement putting Cannon’s politics into modern context: “The land below us belonged to the indigenous Naumkeag community long before settles claimed it as Salem… [Cannon] urges us to grapple with the contradictions and questions of history — and our place in it.” The exhibit is immersive, relevant and touching. It is a shame that Cannon has not found his way into the mainstream canon of American artists, although this is unsurprising given the historic erasure of Native culture, especially contemporary Native culture, in this country. All who are able are urged to see this exhibit in all its glory and pay tribute to a great, forgotten American artist.