Wendy Red Star, “Apsa’olooke Feminist,” 2015. | Image source: Wendy Red Star
When the Portland (Ore.) Art Museum initially planned to highlight Edward Curtis’ prominent, yet controversial, photographs from his published works in The North American Indian, Deana Dartt, curator of Native American art, knew the exhibit needed more than Curtis’ work—it required Native American participation.
Curtis, who died in 1952 at age 82, was not Native American. He’s often praised for documenting Native people in his photographs in the early 1900s—an era during which mainstream society considered Natives a “vanishing race,” which Curtis titled one of his most notable photographs—that many consider captured the everyday life of Native Americans. Others criticize Curtis for romanticizing and manipulating Native lifestyle in his photography.
Dartt and Julia Dolan, curator of photography, developed the exhibit proposal to go beyond The North American Indian and show Native life through a Native lens.
“If we are going to show the Curtis work, we had to do so in a way that really unpacks the critical issues and also privileges the contemporary Native voice over the voice of [Curtis],” Dartt says.
The proposal blossomed into the museum’s newest exhibit, Contemporary Native Photographers and the Edward Curtis Legacy: Zig Jackson, Wendy Red Star, Will Wilson. It asks visitors to consider Curtis’ influence while highlighting contemporary reactions to his complex role representing Native peoples.
The exhibit can be seen through May 8 and includes contemporary photo projects by three Native American photographers in Red Star (Apsa’alooke), Jackson (Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara) and Wilson (Diné).
“Our visitorship is largely clueless about contemporary Native American life and thinks that the body of Curtis’ work is the end-all be-all representation of Indians,” Dartt says. “So they have no idea that Native peoples are alive and well and still very much rooted in their culture and are dynamic, modern people, so we have to unpack these issues for them.”
That begins before visitors even step foot in the museum, outside of which is raised a large banner of Red Star and her 8-year-old daughter, Beatrice. The banner is a version of a self-portrait that Red Star submitted for the exhibit. It shows the two in colorful traditional regalia sitting on a couch in her living room with the background manipulated in colors. Red Star says she’s proud of the banner and her daughter was excited to see it.
“Instead of it being a non-Native photographer, it’s me taking the photo and having control of it,” Red Star says. “We are looking straight into the camera and confronting the camera. It was directed the way that I wanted.”
Red Star says three sections are dedicated to her as part of the larger contemporary exhibit. One section displays the portrait of her and her daughter and another shows a map of 1907 Crow land along with a photo collage of contemporary Crow women in traditional dresses she received from a social-media callout. The third is a selection of Crow photos taken by Curtis with the subjects removed to give them “a rest,” she says.
“In seeing the way Curtis’ images have been commercialized and people who have used them and appropriated them, it’s really empowering for me to cut the images out and take them away,” Red Star says. “You don’t get to see them; you get to see the outline of that person, but you don’t get to see that image anymore, and I think that’s more powerful to think about.”
Jackson’s project takes a different approach. A professor of photography at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, Jackson works to dismantle Native American stereotypes and explore the ways in which popular American culture continues to perpetuate the myth of the “noble savage.”
He says he admires what Curtis accomplished, not only with the limitations of his photography equipment, but through his photos.
“Sure, he embellished and glorified the Native American Indian; who’s not doing that today?” Jackson says.
While teaching photography at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe a few years ago, Jackson says he asked a Hopi student about his feelings on Curtis’ photographs of the Hopi people. “[The student] stopped and thought a little, then looked up and he said, ‘It’s the only place I get to go and see my great-grandfather.’”
Wilson’s project, The Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange, seeks to supplant Curtis’ settler gaze and the body of ethnographic material he compiled with a contemporary vision of Native North America, Wilson writes on his website.
“We’re so much more complicated as creative agents than those amazingly seductive, nostalgic images,” Wilson explains. He echoes Dartt in saying that Curtis’ images are sometimes the only exposure to Natives some people have. “Nostalgia as a political memory can be quietly violent and I want to address that.”
Dartt says she hopes Curtis draws in visitors, but that they leave with a new outlook on photos, especially ones taken of Native Americans by non-Native people.
“Many of our visitors might not come to the museum for a show of contemporary Native photographers, but they see the big Curtis banner and they are compelled to come,” Dartt explains. “It’s a familiar, iconic set of images and it gets people in the door—and then we can introduce them to Wendy, Will and Zig and some Native perspectives of the Curtis work.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Wendy Red Star (Apsa’alooke)
Red Star studied sculpture at Montana State University and earned her master’s degree from UCLA. Her multimedia works explore the intersections of traditional Native American culture and contemporary society.
Will Wilson (Diné)
Wilson studied photography at Oberlin College and the University of New Mexico. His photo subjects participate in the portrait process by including significant objects of their choosing, actively reinserting personal voices and Indigenous authority to the portraits.
Zig Jackson (Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara)
Jackson, who is also known as Rising Buffalo, is a graduate of the University of New Mexico and the San Francisco Art Institute. He works to dismantle stereotypes and paternal modes of thinking, drawing attention to the power relationship between photographers and their subjects.
Dalton Walker (Red Lake Ojibwe) is a journalist living in Arizona. He serves on the Native American Journalists Association board of directors. You can follow him on Twitter @daltonwalker.