Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 10, 2012
Joyce M. Szabo Imprisoned Art, Complex Patronage: Plains Drawings by Howling Wolf and Zotom at the Autry National Center Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research, 2011. 224 pp.; 61 color ills.; 70 b/w ills. Paper $30.00 (9781934691465)

In Imprisoned Art, Complex Patronage: Plains Drawings by Howling Wolf and Zotom at the Autry National Center, Joyce M. Szabo traces the unique patronage of collector Eva Scott Muse Fényes (1849–1930) during her visits to the military prison at Fort Marion, Florida. This book and its unique focus are the legacy of a scholar who for decades has specialized in studying and publishing on the topic of Native American ledger art and other related visual topics. Szabo is also well known for curating several exhibitions on such work.

Specifically, Szabo offers a glimpse into ledger art that is at once concise, well researched, in-depth, and accessible for both academic readers and more general audiences. Her study examines two books of ledger drawings done by the best-known Native American prisoner/artists at Fort Marion, the Kiowa warrior Zotom (1853–1913) and the Southern Cheyenne warrior Howling Wolf (1849–1927). While the two were incarcerated following the bloody Red River war of 1874, they were encouraged by their captor, Army officer Richard Henry Pratt (1840–1926), to acquire skills and trades that might be of practical use in the Anglo-American world into which Pratt attempted to indoctrinate the prisoners. Szabo points out that both artists had extensive experience drawing prior to coming to Fort Marion, as both Kiowa and Southern Cheyenne cultures valued visual imagery.

The war prisoners were held at the fort for roughly three years, from 1875 to 1878; during this time they were subjected to Pratt’s famous “civilizing” processes. The acquisition and/or use of marketable skills was only one element, and Szabo explains other aspects of an institutional process that Pratt would apply on a larger scale when he founded the Carlisle Indian School slightly later. The prisoners had their long hair cut off, were forced to wear paramilitary uniforms instead of indigenous garb, and were given new English names and taught the language. Pratt hoped that this would prove to a skeptical American public (and political leadership) that his charges could be effectively “Americanized” as an alternative to the enforced segregation of the new reservation system.

Part of Pratt’s plan was to allow visitors to come to the fort and interact with the prisoners, thereby showing prominent members of the public how readily the indigenous population could be integrated. Scott was a repeat visitor who came from a prominent New York family. Important for Szabo’s narrative is the fact that Scott was an exceptional visitor and patron who had come not simply to marvel at the “exotic” prisoners. Rather, she was a philanthropist, a conservationist, collector, world traveler, as well as an artist. This independent-minded Victorian’s collection would later form the foundation of the Autry National Center in Los Angeles, where these ledger drawing books are currently located.

Szabo delves deeply into the relationship between Scott, Pratt, Zotom, and Howling Wolf; in so doing, she importantly differentiates Scott’s commissions from those of Pratt. The uniqueness of her patronage, together with the individuality of the two artists, forms the core of the book and marks its most significant contribution to the field. A component of Scott’s unique status as patron is the fact that she taught English to some of the prisoners. It was in the course of such interactions that Scott commissioned the present ledger drawings from Zotom and Howling Wolf in 1877. Szabo thus sees a more “complex” patronage between Scott and the two artists, a word that serves as a tagline in the book’s title.

The book’s early chapters are dedicated to a biography of Scott, a contextualization of the ledger drawings against the backdrop of the Southern Plains wars of the 1860s and 1870s, the infamous transport of the war prisoners to Fort Marion, the prisoners’ subsequent lives at Fort Marion, and the complicated personal interactions and relations mentioned above. Szabo also wisely gives the reader a very detailed review of the extensive scholarly literature on ledger art, which ranges from the largely ethnographic studies of government anthropologists and linguists of the late 1800s, to biographical studies done in the 1960s and 1970s, to more contemporary theoretical studies done in the 1990s. Szabo reminds readers that all such studies, and the methodological tensions they bring to bear (i.e., ethnography vs. aesthetics, object vs. theory, museological contextualization, etc.), may still influence how these images are viewed. Szabo jettisons a more theoretical approach to the work and opts to focus on the specifics of patronage as well as the aesthetic and content-based originality occurring in individual images by the artists.

The remaining chapters of Szabo’s book are dedicated to image-by-image explanations. This begins with an elaborately crafted title page drawn up by Scott and bearing the title, “The Life of the Red-Man Illustrated by a Kiowa Brave” (68), an indication of the influence she exercised over the artist as well as over subsequent viewers. One image in particular is suggestive in terms of the leverage Scott had over Zotom in his rendering of historical events and reveals key differences between these images and those done by Zotom and Howling Wolf for Pratt. Zotom, in contrast to Howling Wolf, focused more on the historical events leading up to the Fort Marion imprisonment, and thus dealt with subject matter that could have potentially been very controversial for Pratt. One image, again titled by Scott, is “Indian Camp Wichita Mountains. Capt. Pratt arranging for surrender of the Indians—Nov. 1874” (93). In interpreting this image, Szabo wisely strikes a note of caution. First, the date given for this surrender scene is incorrect in Scott’s titling, indicating the patron’s at times inaccurate filtering of history. The artist drew the scene in three separate versions, one of which was for Pratt. Scott’s version differs from the Pratt’s in significant details. In Scott’s version, a native figure provocatively holding a knife in the air stands in the middle of an array of other figures and tipis set against a landscape backdrop. This figure is Zotom himself, making this image autobiographical. Szabo explains that he is engaging in a ritual of shaming, directed at one of his fellow Kiowa for refusing to fully partake in the surrender to the army. Zotom omitted this self-portrait in Pratt’s version, and Szabo interprets this as an effort on his part (and Pratt’s) to leave out details that may have been perceived as threatening in any way. Thus the surrender scene in Pratt’s version appears to be more peaceable, no doubt reflecting Pratt’s own political agenda.

A final example of Szabo’s analyses may be taken from Howling Wolf’s book. In a drawing titled by Scott, “Antelope Hunt” (169), a Southern Cheyenne hunting party stalks what appears to be a group of three antelopes. Szabo skillfully fleshes out the representational conventions used by Howling Wolf in depicting space and time. The foreground, middle ground, and background are stacked up in horizontal registers. In the foreground, or lowest register, Howling Wolf depicts a single hunter on his belly preparing to attack the unaware animals. He uses variously sized dashes on the page to represents footprints and hoofprints, coming from the upper left and right corners and making their way down to the mid-foreground where the hunter and animals meet. Szabo argues that Howling Wolf indicates to the viewer the temporal and spatial progression of the figures in the image. In other words, Szabo’s interpretations range from political-institutional to ethnographic to spatio-temporal.

Szabo’s task is at times made difficult by the admitted lack of historical documentation covering the interactions between the people involved in the creation of these ledger books. This is occasionally a problem, specifically when she delves into the artist-patron relationship between Scott and the two warrior-artists. She argues that Zotom’s work is more influenced by Scott’s desires as patron, whereas Howling Wolf’s images seem to be slightly more independent in terms of subject matter. In fact, Szabo offers only a single inscription written by Scott on the inside cover of Howling Wolf’s book. Scott’s inscription reads as follows: “I sent to New York for the two books and gave many of the titles—or subjects—for the drawings of Zotom. Howling Wolf preferred to choose his own subjects. E.S.” (40) From the inscription, Szabo thus infers that Scott gave Zotom his subjects to paint, whereas Howling Wolf was more insistent in painting his own subject matter. Apparently Scott offered no further explanation for this difference of approach, and thus the reader is given to wonder exactly why and how Zotom and Howling Wolf negotiated subject matter so differently with their patron. Overall, though, Imprisoned Art, Complex Patronage is productive for scholars of ledger art, or for those interested in Western Americana more broadly, as it offers solid contextualization, a useful and detailed literature review, and a systematic breakdown of the meaning and significance of each individual drawing.

Hayes Peter Mauro
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Design, Queensborough Community College, CUNY

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