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June 01 2017

Jerry Saltz Can’t Get Koba’s Drawing out of his Head

New York Magazine

In an article in New York Magazine, writer and art critic Jerry Saltz recounts his lasting experience of encountering a Ledger Drawing by Koba (Wild Horse, 1848-1880) during Frieze New York 2017. ’It’s time to integrate works like this into art museums,’ he insists. 

The drawing, which was previously attributed to Nokkoist (Bear's Heart, 1851-1882), depicts a bright yellow train traversing an urbanized landscape of ‘fields of corn, front yards, wooden fences, towns, buildings, and tracks, all running through the back of America’s memory.’ The scene evokes the fateful journey of 72 Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Kiowa warriors from their native lands to imprisonment, without trial, at Fort Marion, in St. Augustine, Florida, following the Red River War of 1875. ‘Somehow,’ Saltz observes, this simple depiction ‘expressed a thousand anxieties, lost freedom, emotions secreted away, omens of anger, empty worlds, tears, and the life of a captive. 

Saltz explains that the artist was one of a small number of Native American warriors encouraged to create drawings for the tourists and dignitaries that visited the fort. These artists found coded ways to depict their captivity and life outside camp walls. Expounding on the manner in which the drawing’s formal qualities communicate deep contradictions and grief Saltz writes:

'The vantage point of the drawing flips from frontal and straight on — the left being the bottom of the image with the tracks turning right, to an overhead depiction of a planted field and fences curving in every direction. This is also the last lost moment of life outside camp walls, with color, a sense of life in the world, a world that is enjoyed not endured. The thought that the person who made this paid with years of his life for the “honor” of creating it drills into my heart.'

Despite its artistic and historic significance, Ledger Art remains largely underrepresented in the permanent collections of art museums. ‘I think it could go up against anything made anywhere in 1875. And should. Soon.’

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Jerry Saltz Can’t Get Koba’s Drawing out of his Head