ANGEL DE CORA / Fleecy Cloud Floating in Place 1871-1919
Angel de Cora is First Nation. She is she and she knows to be Angel de Cora.
I read that Angel de Cora was the most significant First Nations* artist before WW1, but what does that mean with respect to the greater art world? What will it take for her work to be recognized globally? Will a contemporary curator “reassess” her career and place her work into a conceptually sealed Biennial, Documenta or Manifesta? Maybe, maybe not, but what I do know is that she matters to me. I am not First Nations but I am an eastern European immigrant who came to Canada in the late 60s and I am a female artist making work today. I need to know that women like Angel de Cora existed against all odds.
De Cora’s ancestry included Ho-Chunk (Winnebago), Métis and French. Her Ho-Chunk name was Hinook-Mahiwi-Kalinaka, which means Fleecy Cloud Floating in Place. A cloud that is forever buoyant in place is very telling. Perhaps this is the perfect way to describe an artist or a magician. Perhaps all female artists are also magicians.
De Cora lived in Nebraska on the Winnebago reservation until she was 14. It was then that she was taken from her family and put in a residential school in Hampton, Virginia. Many First Nation children were isolated from their families and placed in residential schools as a way of forcing them to assimilate into white culture. De Cora was made to abandon her Ho-Chunk heritage and to work for a white family. During those hard years she found solace in her drawing abilities. Her talent gave her hope and she went on to study fine art and then illustration at Drexel Institute in Philadelphia. Angel took on custodial work to pay her tuition. At Drexel she was encouraged to make art dealing with her identity. This became the basis of her work in her professional life, but sadly not much of her artistry survives today.
I first came across her paintings and illustrations in a book many years ago during a school project. At that time I was only 14, the same age as when Angel was taken from her family. In my romantic and naive position I saw her as a manifestation, and an avatar. I was particularly drawn to her book cover art. The graphic simplicity of her painted covers reference First Nations traditional design and at first glance resembles the woodcuts of Andrea Büttner or the paintings of Silke Otto-Knapp. De Cora’s combination of form and symbolism was forward-looking in terms of its graphic abstraction, and her decision to collaborate with white authors was a step towards political activism. De Cora’s illustrations were however realistic scenes of indigenous life and many times she depicted First Nation people in non-traditional dress. This was rare given white America’s stereotypical image of cowboys and Indians.
Angel de Cora unfortunately lived through a lifetime of discrimination and marginalization because of her in First Nation roots. Her private life was riddled with equal injustices. She was married to a man named William ‘Lone Star’ Dietz for over 14 years. Dietz fraudulently claimed to have indigenous status and exploited De Cora’s culture and talent in order to promote his own art career. Today as a 49-year-old female artist I look at De Cora’s work and life and understand that she was not a manifestation but a very real woman who suffered many obstacles during her lifetime but whose few remaining works resonate with purpose and authority.
How did Angel de Cora continue to make extraordinary work against all odds? The answer lies in urgency, resistance and her consequential need to visually represent her indigenous culture. Her work lead her to become an important activist and teacher within her own community. She was able to gain ownership of herself and a personal sense of power through her work, so much so that the history of art making in North America should never be told without Angel de Cora’s story.
The ‘new’ can only ever be a clearer understanding of the contradictions that exist in our world at any given time. Angel de Cora was the new and the forever - Fleecy Cloud Floating in Place.
* I use the term First Nations because I am Canadian and we refer to all indigenous people of North America as First Nations even though I am aware that in America they still use the term ‘Native American’.
Waggoner, Linda M. Fire Light: The Life of Angel de Cora, Winnebago Artist. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008.
Sonneborn, Liz. A to Z of American Indian Women. New York: Facts on File Inc; Revised edition, 2007.