"Contemporary Native Photographers and the Edward Curtis Legacy: Zig Jackson, Wendy Red Star, and Will Wilson": Portland Art Museum

By Raymond, Jon | Artforum International, Summer 2016 | Go to article overview

"Contemporary Native Photographers and the Edward Curtis Legacy: Zig Jackson, Wendy Red Star, and Will Wilson": Portland Art Museum


Raymond, Jon, Artforum International


PORTLAND, OREGON

"Contemporary Native Photographers and the Edward Curtis Legacy: Zig Jackson, Wendy Red Star, and Will Wilson"

PORTLAND ART MUSEUM

Edward Sheriff Curtis (1868-1952) gets a bad rap for a variety of imperialist sins: sentimentalizing his American Indian subjects by posing them in antiquated costumes, deleting signs of contemporary culture from his frames, accepting funding from the arch-capitalist magnate J. P. Morgan, and generally promulgating the romantic objectifications of the hegemonic, colonizing mind. However, a closer look at Curtis's life and work makes this judgment hard to square. In addition to tirelessly documenting a vast population of marginalized people against the backdrop of genocide, he spent his life recording endangered indigenous languages, petitioning for American Indian rights, and arguing for natives' religious freedom. He penned the first revisionist theory of the Battle of Little Bighorn (by a white man, anyway), with Custer, at last, cast as the true villain he was.

But Curtis remains controversial enough that the Portland Art Museum felt compelled to bracket his work, enlisting three contemporary native artists to provide a modern context for his legacy. In general, the gambit worked fine. Wendy Red Star, an Apsaalooke artist based in Portland, contributed Map of the Allotted Lands of the Crow Reservation Montana--A Tribute to Many Good Women, 2016, an impressive wall map of a Crow reservation in Montana decorated with images of women and children, alongside a wall of tribal names handwritten by the artist with her mother and sister, thereby injecting the inert cartographic document with the vitality of real human life. Navajo Nation-raised artist Will Wilson, who often uses old-fashioned large-format cameras to postapocalyptic ends, provided grungy, distressed tintype portraits of American Indians, the originals of which he gifted to his sitters. (Curtis didn't make a practice of giving his pictures to his subjects.) And Zig Jackson, raised in North Dakota, presented projects that hit multiple clear notes, sometimes funny (portraits of the artist in public spaces wearing a headdress and posing next to a sign that says ENTERING ZIG'S INDIAN RESERVATION ... NEW AGERS PROHIBITED) and sometimes achingly straightforward (subtle, intimate portraits of contemporary American Indians in their homes, surrounded by the everyday realities of their lives). …

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