Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate
“What does Independence mean to me?” This is the question that, in 1975, the Lorillard Tobacco Co. in New York asked 12 American artists: Will Barnet, Colleen Browning, Audrey Flack, Red Grooms, Joseph Hirsch, Robert Indiana, Alex Katz, Jacob Lawrence, Marisol Escobar, Larry Rivers, Edward Ruscha, and Fritz Scholder. Commissioned to celebrate the 1976 Bicentennial of American Independence, the Kent Bicentennial Portfolio: Spirit of Independence (1975) comprises the response of each artist, in print form, to the above question.
FWMoA has the full portfolio in our permanent collection, but today we are going to look at two of the prints more closely, specifically Fritz Scholder’s Bicentennial Indian and, currently on view in FWMoA’s By Women permanent collection exhibition, Marisol’s Women’s Equality. Let’s start with Scholder’s, shown here:
What does independence mean to Scholder? A Native American himself, he, however, identified as a “non-Indian Indian” in his course to create art that broadened how and who defined Native Americans and their art. Aligned with this message, he pledged to never render Native Americans in his art, yet, in this print, he portrays a Native American warrior holding a fan of eagle feathers in his hand, symbols of Native strength and survival. Sitting in a portrait style reminiscent of the 19th century, an American flag lays draped across his lap, obscuring the bottom portion of his traditional dress. Flags are symbols of nations and are used to mark and signal territory possessed by them. When English colonists first came to America, the British flag flew above their military forts and in their towns and cities. Therefore, the American flag became not just a signal of ownership but a symbol for the fight to freedom from tyranny. In respect to this, America even has laws against burning the flag, and the burning of the flag is a strong symbol for citizens finding governmental decisions unjust. Historically, Native Americans did not possess a comparable idea of property ownership like that in Europe. What was once land for use by all was systematically taken from them by the American flag, to be “properly used” and cultivated. In this sense, Scholder’s take on Independence is tongue-and-cheek, suggesting that Native American traditions and customs were covered up and misrepresented by the American flag. Moved to reservations, these federally recognized Native American lands belong to Native Americans, meaning that they hold a degree of independence from the rest of the United States and the American flag. Another analysis could see the flag merging into the Native American dress, instead of covering it, suggesting a uniting of two cultures where neither blankets nor obscures the other.
Marisol’s print, Women’s Equality, is a straightforward message we can learn just by reading the title! For the Bicentennial portfolio, she chose to depict Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, two leaders of the women’s rights movement. Stanton, alongside Susan B. Anthony, formed the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869, though principal organizers first met in 1848 at the Seneca Falls Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. Independence, originally given to white, land-owning males, should mean independence for all; and suffragettes believed that all men and women were created equal, thus they also deserved the right to vote, own property, and pursue education and job opportunities. The print shows Stanton and Mott holding hands, symbolic of women’s organization and cooperative tactics that, eventually, led to the declaration of the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote. Other hands are featured reaching toward their clasped hands or resting on their shoulders, showing that they were not alone in the fight for equal rights. Their unsmiling, determined faces embody their intensity and motivation, further enshrined in the attention to detail to their faces and mere suggestions of clothing. What they are wearing is not important, what they accomplished is: independence for women.
As we celebrate Independence Day this year, take some time to think on these artists’ interpretations of independence. In light of recent cultural events, from the resurgence of the women’s movement to Black Lives Matter, art can help us have conversations that are not easy, and remind us that our past struggles for freedom and independence made important gains, like the right to vote. As a symbol for both rebellion and nationalism, the flag reminds us of where we started (the 13 stripes representing the 13 original colonies) and what we have achieved (the 50 stars representing the 50 states), and may change again in response to where we take America in the future.