Indian Country Today
By Lee Allen
November | 2014
Two truisms to live by—“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and “One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.” This dichotomy of perception is never more pronounced than when the subject of Edward S. Curtis’ photography comes up. The famed photographer of the American West, who created iconic images of Native peoples at the start of the 20thcentury by photographing 80 tribes in more than 40,000 poses, has been both lauded and decried for the last 100 years.
That controversy over his work, methods, and motivations continues in two exhibits now on display at the Arizona State Museum. Regarding Curtis: Contemporary Indian Artists Respond to the Curtis Imageryis a showing of 18 contemporary Native American artists in a variety of media whose work treats issues of identity in response to the Curtis works. These artists’ pieces and personal statements lend depth and add complexity to the early photogravures.
Jody Naranjo Folwell-Turpia, a Santa Clara Pueblo clay artist referred to as the Avant-Garde Matriarch of Native American pottery, says: “Whether romanticized or contested, Curtis’ images continue to influence our perceptions of Native identity. This exhibit and these artists hope to inspire different thought about past and contemporary Native cultures and what it means to be Indian.”
Documentary photographer Cara Romero (Chemehuevi) calls Curtis’ stereotypical style an example of the exploitative nature of photography. “His images once defined Native American imagery and for far too long these images perpetuated a mainstream understanding of what a Native American looks like, and perhaps, a feeling of what a Native American should look like.”
Running concurrently with this exhibit isa student project (Photo ID: Portraits by Native Youth)in which Tohono O’odham students from Ha:san Preparatory and Leadership School explored their own photographic portraits involving concepts of identity and self-expression in response to the Curtis works.
Both exhibits will remain on display at the Tucson museum through the spring of 2015.