Stephen Mopope, Game of Skill

Stephen Mopope, Game of Skill, 1933, oil on canvas, 57.2 x 122.6 cm (Gilcrease Museum)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We are in the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, looking at this beautiful, expansive landscape by Stephen Mopope, a Kiowa artist from this state.

Dr. Chelsea Herr: [0:15] Stephen Mopope is famed as one of the artists of the Kiowa Six collective, who were well known for their early 20th century paintings, typically on paper, of daily Native life in Oklahoma.

[0:27] When we talk about this collective, we are referring to Stephen Mopope, Jack Hokeah, Monroe Tsatoke, Lois Smoky, Spencer Asah, and James Auchiah.

Dr. Zucker: [0:37] When I think of Stephen Mopope’s work, I think about some of the work that he did for the WPA, images which isolate the figures against broad, flat fields that make beauty out of flat planes and sharp contours, so this is a departure.

Dr. Herr: [0:53] The figures in this painting hearken back to that flat style of painting, of these bold fields of color, distinct line work around each of the figures; however, in this case they are not the focus of the image, they are a part of it, but the landscape takes center stage here.

Dr. Zucker: [1:10] The organization of the canvas separates most of the figures either to the extreme right or the extreme left, almost as if they’re curtains that have been parted to allow us into this deep, beautiful view of the Wichita mountains.

Dr. Herr: [1:23] Even the shape of the tepees are echoed in the groupings of figures, so these lines of figures on the far right are then repeated in the lines of tepees that move to the left from there and then into the foreground, where we see this group of figures on the far left gathered for this game of skill.

Dr. Zucker: [1:40] We see a group of figures who are standing shoulder to shoulder, watching a young man arch his back as he’s preparing to throw an arrow to the distant target, which we see on the right side of the canvas with a feather attached to it.

Dr. Herr: [1:53] This is a competition where the competitors stand on two ends of that field and try to get as close to that target on the other side of the field as possible. In the foreground, we see the evidence of his competitor, who has already thrown one of his arrows, and [it] is stuck in the ground.

Dr. Zucker: [2:08] Very close to the target, so that this young man actually has quite a challenge ahead of him if he’s going to get closer than that.

Dr. Herr: [2:14] It’s a community-oriented event. It’s something that the entire encampment or group of Kiowa people can come around and observe. Even in the center of the image, we see two small children running and playing across this field. We see the horses gathered in the background.

Dr. Zucker: [2:30] Seeing the adults in the foreground, the children in the middle ground, the horses beyond them, becoming so small in relationship to those even more distant mountains, gives us a beautiful sense of the vastness of this panorama.

Dr. Herr: [2:43] The Wichita Mountains are directly center. It’s a poignant choice to really center a physical place that is significant to the Kiowa people, as well as other tribes in this region.

Dr. Zucker: [2:54] The Kiowa had lived in this area for a long time.

Dr. Herr: [2:57] This area had been their traditional hunting ground, so they did have long-standing relationships with other tribes in this area, including the Comanche and the Apache. So when the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache Reservation was established in 1867, they had already had relationships with what were now their close neighbors.

[3:14] By 1933, the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache Reservation had been disestablished by Congress. The lands that made up that reservation had already been allotted and opened for settlement by non-Natives. By representing such an everyday or genre scene in this specific place, Mopope is driving home that there are these ancestral relationships with land and with place.

[3:37] Mopope has chosen to represent the human figures in relation to the land itself rather than as dominating or owning the land, but rather living communally with the land.

Dr. Zucker: [3:50] In fact, the human occupants become reflections of the landscape. Look at the way that the figures on the extreme left are so close together, and they overlap one behind the other moving left. If you look at the mountain range at the extreme right side in the distance, you see the same thing, but here the mountains are receding one behind the other to the right.

[4:09] And so there is this mirroring of the people and the landscape.

Dr. Herr: [4:13] The human figures become grouped together like they have their own mass as a whole, similar to the way the mountains have a mass.

Dr. Zucker: [4:20] The vastness is further accentuated by the amount of sky that the artist has allotted. A full 50 percent of this canvas is given over to these beautiful billowing clouds.

Dr. Herr: [4:31] This is a recognizable feature of the Oklahoma landscape. Mopope is celebrating these areas that have not been overtaken by industrialized society.

Dr. Zucker: [4:42] To paint this image in 1933, after the loss of these lands, is to paint [an] idyllic reconstruction of a past that no longer existed.

Dr. Herr: [4:52] This makes sense, too, if we consider the lineage that Stephen Mopope came from. He was descended from a long line of artists and Kiowa leaders. He had uncles, he had grandfathers who were responsible for keeping calendars and painted tepees that memorialized and created this embodied or visualized history of their community. So he’s carrying this on, just with a different medium.

Dr. Zucker: [5:17] He mentioned that the moment in his life when he had felt most honored is when his relatives had asked him to represent their deeds on a tepee.

Dr. Herr: [5:25] It’s considered a gift to have the current calendar keeper or tribal historian ask you to then take on that role. That is something that was passed down through his line of ancestors.

Dr. Zucker: [5:37] So, to see tepees here in this landscape must have been a personal experience for the artist.

Dr. Herr: [5:43] He would have camped throughout his life with his community in scenes very similar to this. It really is not a distant memory for him. It is something that he would have lived and experienced, but really could have happened for centuries before Mopope created this painting.

[5:58] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Chelsea Herr and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Stephen Mopope, Game of Skill," in Smarthistory, August 16, 2022, accessed June 25, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/stephen-mopope-game-of-skill/.