Photography exhibit evokes questions about true Native history and culture

Contemporary Native Photographers and the Edward Curtis Legacy is on display at the Portland Art Museum until May 8. The exhibit features Curtis’ photographic depictions of Native-Americans which are placed next to other photos to elicit audience dialogue, comparing and contrasting the different outlooks of Native-culture.

Curtis is the author of The North American Indian, a 20-book set that documents the cultural practices, languages and traditions of over 80 tribes.

His work is controversial for the ways in which it romanticizes Native culture. He has been criticized for manipulating his photographs and posing his subjects in such a way that eliminates signs of modern life and creates an idealized, nostalgic pre-European image of Native Americans.

The exhibit asks audiences to think critically about Curtis’ photographs by placing them alongside the perspectives of current Native Americans, one of whom is Portland-based artist Wendy Red Star, from the Crow Nation.

Her piece “Apsa’olooke Feminist” is one of four photographs in a series made in collaboration with her daughter. It is a contemporary version of classic portraiture in which they are dressed in colorful shawls and bead work.

This stands in stark contrast to Curtis’ photographs which are black and white. Red Star wanted to highlight these colors because they weren’t available to Curtis when he was taking pictures at the beginning of the 20th century.

“Crows are known for wearing lots and lots of colors and patterns,” Red Star said. “It was really important to fill my area of the gallery space with that color.”

For her it’s also important that when people come into the exhibit they see the Crow Nation, not just Native Americans.

“For me it’s really about specificity and putting names to people and humanization,” Red Star said.

One patron, Amy Minato, is the writer in residence for Literary Arts’ Writers in the Schools program. She was with a group of students from Metropolitan Learning Center who were asked to spend time looking at a specific piece in the exhibit and then write about it.

“This is a particularly provocative exhibit because it brings up a lot of social issues for them to talk about. We talk about the power of writing to change,” Minato said. “These photographs obviously are creative expression that have affected social change, so they’re perfect for this group.”

Evelyn McMahan, a senior at Metropolitan Learning Center, contemplated a series of silhouettes of Native people and plans to write a poem based off her thoughts.

“I’m still deciding how I feel about it because I feel in cutting out the shapes of the people it’s kind of like leaving them up to our interpretation,” McMahan said. “But then again, could it be taking away that power to assume from us? I’m not sure.”

Olivia Glynn, a junior at MLC, said she was struck by a Zig Jackson photograph in which a Native man wearing a headdress stands against a cityscape next to a sign that reads: Entering Zig’s Indian Reservation.

“I like this one best because of the [man’s] stance,” Glynn said. “It looks very strong, almost confrontational toward the camera. But also very proud. It’s pretty rad.”

The exhibit also provides opportunities for visitors to respond. At two locations, reams of paper are set up for people to write down their thoughts and reactions. Roger Carlile, a PAM docent of nine years, said the exhibit is set up to be provocative because it asks the viewer to think about the old culture and new culture and whether certain Native people were exploited. It asks if their history was correctly recorded.

“You have the rather poignant statements about the current artists speaking about how their native languages and cultures were treated,” Carlile said.

Carlile appreciates the way the students were asked to spend a lot of time with the work instead of just walking through.

“To sit in front of art and write reflections syncs up with what the curators and the museum staff are trying to get people to do in front of art, rather than whisk through and have a short visit,” Carlile said. “Spend some time, think about this.”