Will Wilson (Dine/Bilagaana, b. 1969)
Nakotah LaRance, Citizen of the Hopi Nation, 6-Time World Champion Hoop Dancer, Member, Dancing Earth, Indigenous Contemporary Dance Creations, CIPX SFAI 2012.
Platinum print, 1/20
National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (26/9278)
Just opened last week at the National Museum of the American Indian is a new exhibit featuring photographers Larry McNeil and Will Wilson. Titled Indelible, this exhibit explores the portrayal of Native Americans in historical photos. “Photographers such as Edward S. Curtis, Gertrude Käsebier, and Joseph Keiley famously printed their photographs of North American Indians on platinum paper, using the prints’ highly romanticizing softness to represent the “Vanishing Race.” McNeil and Wilson decided to use this same medium to dispel the perception of Native Americans these previous photographers had created. One thing is for certain, you will not leave this without being moved to reconsider your own view of Native American portrayal on film.
Larry McNeil (Tlingit/Nisga'a, b. 1955)
Circle of Rebirth, from the Feather series (4 of 5), 1992.
National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (26/9283)
The first thing you will notice is the beauty of photographs made using the platinum print process. While it is all in greyscale, I never imagined there could be so many different shades and brightness of black, white and grey. Each picture is sharp and the defining lines of each object or individual in the picture are clear. Two series stood out to me more than the others: the feather series and the Tonto series. In some native cultures a skull, symbolic of death to many, is actually symbolic of the death of the natives. Larry McNeil took a dark symbol and combined it with a beautiful black feather to create some very sharp and contrasting images. However, the quill of the feather is such a bright white, really the only brightness on the pictures, that it led me to conclude there is still hope for life. The Tonto series took a much more direct approach in addressing the portrayal of Native Americans in photography. Larry McNeil took Richard Pratt and Edward S. Carlisle, two individuals who were either anti-Indian or stereotypically portrayed Indians and “photoshopped” them right into the picture. As social and political commentary, the photographer’s goal was to use native symbols to push Native Americans to create their own representations of themselves with the goal of shooting down the stereotypical photos of the past. My favorite work was a photograph taken by Will Wilson. He took a picture of European-American Michael G. Wilson (as opposed to the other way around) and secured the rights to distribute this image. This was his statement on Native Americans taking their cultural portrayals into their own hands in order to overcome decades of stereotypes.
A very powerful and moving exhibit, these images are on display through January 15, 2015. Whether you go for the photography, social statement, or just find yourself in the area, this exhibit is definitely worth your time.