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Browse: The Kiowa Six: Painting Oral Histories

For Indigenous Plains cultures, painting has always been a way to tell stories and record tribal histories. Within this enduring practice, the masterworks by the early twentieth-century artist collective known as the Kiowa Six deeply shaped and influenced modern and contemporary Indigenous art for more than one hundred years. Their signature style was rooted in traditional painting techniques used for decorating Kiowa tipis and calendars, and for creating ledger art.[1] Gilcrease Museum has a significant collection of more than 190 paintings by the Kiowa Six, the collective that birthed an Indigenous art movement known as the Kiowa Style of painting. Recognized by its lack of figural shading, and backgrounds that have a shallow or indistinguishable depth of field, the style is also known as Flatstyle and Oklahoma Style.

The Kiowa Six radically shifted figurative, narrative-based painting traditions during the early twentieth century, and their iconic Flatstyle paintings captured both the tangible, physical world and the intangible worldviews of Kiowa people. The subjects were representational, and the figures’ forms were painted in full, with outlines that communicate to the viewer concise details about a subject’s age, gender, place in society, and relationship to the other elements in the painting. The Kiowa Six also began using tempera, acrylics, and oils rather than traditional media such as biodegradable and sustainable plant-, stone-, or earth-based pigments.

The original artist collective, first known as the Kiowa Five, was composed of four men and one woman: Spencer Asah (1905–1954), Jack Hokeah (1902–1973), Stephen Mopope (1898–1974), Lois Smokey (1907–1981), and Monroe Tsatoke (1904–1937). They became the Kiowa Six after James Auchiah (1906–1974) joined in 1927. Their boarding school education did not provide adequate qualifications for university admission, and this, along with racial segregation in the newly formed state of Oklahoma (1907), shaped the profoundly impactful context of the studio arts instruction the Kiowa Six received from Swedish artist and curator Oscar Jacobson. Jacobson was also the director of the University of Oklahoma School of Art, and he and fellow professor Edith Mahier developed a technical program in which the Kiowa Six collective could hone a studio arts practice. Here, the artist collective created a modern awakening for traditional Kiowa painting.

Relationality is key to traditional Kiowa painting techniques, and this concept is expressed stylistically through narrative and graphic languages indicative of the subject’s identity. The Kiowa Six’s modern and austere figures exist within monochromatic or void backgrounds to focalize an embodied movement or moment in time. The paintings, derived from the artists’ memories and lived experiences, are connected to oral history accounts of the imagery. Kiowa artists have long depicted cosmologies, chronological calendars, genealogies, and recorded histories through painting, and the Kiowa Six drew on these traditional practices. Pictorial painting among the Kiowa was traditionally reserved for gender-specific applications, as the male painter participated in daily life, and in ceremonial or ritual practices. Although the Kiowa Six were influenced by traditional Kiowa art, their artworks utilized contemporary painting approaches and materials that radically revolutionized Kiowa art.

In 1928, the Kiowa Six stepped onto the world stage, exhibiting a collection of watercolors at the International Congress for Art Education, Drawing and Applied Arts in Prague, Czechoslovakia. The following year, Jacobson authored a book about Kiowa painting that included a folio of thirty-two full-size color reproductions of paintings by five of the six artists. The Kiowa Six also contributed paintings to the 1932 Venice Biennale. These exhibitions brought the artists international critical acclaim. Their painted works bridged Plains traditional painting with modern art, heavily influencing the flattened Studio style popularized in the 1920s and 1930s. The artists also juxtaposed their imagery against the inaccurate stereotypes of Native Americans that saturated the nation at that time, from fine arts to advertisements.

The Kiowa Six came from social and cultural circumstances in which responsibilities were passed down generationally, meaning they inherited the right to paint from their ancestors. This intergenerational artistry continues today: each of the artists is survived by many descendants. The Kiowa Six have inspired living artists, including esteemed heritage artist Vanessa Paukeigope Jennings, painter Beau Falling Star Tsatoke, and author Jack Hokeah.

—Jordan Poorman Cocker, Henry Luce Foundation Curatorial Scholar for Indigenous Painting Collection Research, 2022


[1] Not long after Fort Reno was established in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) in 1874, more than thirty Cheyenne and Arapaho men and one woman defied the military takeover of the land. They were arrested and sent to Fort Marion (now called Castillo de San Marcos) in St. Augustine, Florida. At Fort Marion, attempts were made to assimilate and colonize the prisoners. They were encouraged to renounce their culture, were given Western educations, and were taught to speak and write English. The prisoner artists also continued to make narrative figurative drawings and paintings, although now using media such as graphite, ink, colored pencils, oil pastels, and watercolors on paper rather than natural pigments and hide. The works are called ledger art because the paper was from accountants’ ledger books. After they were released from prison in 1878, several Fort Marion survivors returned to Fort Reno, where they enlisted as scouts and continued drawing.