Udall, Chapter 5: “The Spiritual Core”

by chunte4

Generally speaking I have no problem with each artist’s use of “the natural” in their paintings as a form of self expression, but the appropriation of native culture by Carr and O’Keef struck me as incredibly ignorant and a dehumanizing exercise in furthering cultural stereotypes. O’Keef claimed to have been searching for an “‘aboriginal Indian soul'” (pg. 55) yet all comments on Native culture by O’Keef contain a vague mysticism indicative of someone who has no understanding the various subcultures and intricacies of Native life yet has idealized it to the point of misrepresentation. Udall even implies O’Keef does this intentionally when she describes her painting of a Latino carved devotional image or bulto, entitled Wooden Virgin. She writes that the figure in the painting “has been emptied of historical context, refilled with nature. She is another example of a twentieth century artist naturalizing the cultural.” (pg. 238) Yet for a culture that has endured years of marginalization, removing the cultural aspects of an object, when done by someone outside of that culture such as O’Keef, only succeeds in trivializing of Latino and indigenous identities in America. She removes what America has already deemed “strange,” “insignificant,” or “primitive” and attempted to build up her own mythology, thus erasing the identities of a culture she has not even attempted to understand. Her mindset parallels colonist tendencies to take unfamiliar cultures and reduce them to parodies of themselves as a way of “othering” that which they don’t understand.

Carr also appropriates native culture in a more subtle yet equally damaging way. Udall does acknowledge and attempt to excuse this act of disrespect somewhat when she writes that: “Carr’s admiration for indigenous groups was based, admittedly, on limited experience, but she unabashedly called on her imagination to supplement her own scanty knowledge.” (pg. 246) She does not however address the fact that redesigning another’s beliefs to fit one’s own idea of their own culture, rather than educating oneself about the culture in question is extremely problematic. Her appropriation carries the implication that the actual native peoples which she claims to admire are not valuable enough in themselves, and that she needs to remake them in her image for them to be worthy of her art. Considering the long history of white colonists either invalidating, destroying, or misrepresenting native culture, her weaving together of “elements of native mysticism with a highly personal brand of Christianity” only serves as yet another addition to the highly damaging trend of Western European cultures exploiting those of indigenous peoples.  Out of the three artists only Khalo can claim an actual, substantive connection to the native culture of Mexico due to her Mexican heritage on her mother’s side. Interestingly she also incorporated alchemy in tandem with her usual Mexican mythological references in order to gain further knowledge on “arcane knowledge and occult spirituality.” (pg. 260) The combination of these two elements led her to create a complex and interesting set of visual elements that did not rely on the appropriation and misinterpretation of another’s culture. While all three artists have complex multi layered believes, I believe Khalo has a much more nuanced and informed understanding of the cultures she references, and as a result I take the spiritual elements in her paintings much more seriously than I do either Carr’s or O’Keef’s.