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In our Hands: Native Photography, 1890 to Now, October 22, 2023 - January 14, 2024, Minneapolis Institute of Art

Curators: Jill Ahlberg Yohe, Jaida Grey Eagle, et Casey Riley
Emily C. Burns

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12023 marked an exciting year for museum exhibitions on Native American photography. Seventy artworks from the last three decades assembled in Speaking with Light: Contemporary Indigenous Photography, co-curated by John Rohrbach, Senior Curator of Photographs at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, and Will Wilson (citizen of the Navajo Nation), Associate Professor of Studio Art at University of Texas at Austin, traveled to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas and to the Denver Art Museum. In the autumn, a monumental exhibition co-curated by Jill Ahlberg Yohe, Jaida Grey Eagle, and Casey Riley in conjunction with curatorial and community councils and hosted by the Minneapolis Institute of Art, In Our Hands: Native Photography, 1890 to Now, featured more than one-hundred and fifty photographs made by photographers indigenous to Turtle Island from 1890 to the present, comprising First Nations, Métis, Inuit, and Native American makers. Artworks encompassed late nineteenth- and early twentieth- century photographers B.A. Haldane (Tsimshian), Jennie Ross Cobb (Cherokee Nation), and Richard Throssel (Cree) to the work of contemporary Native photographers presently intervening in both how photography is practiced and how the medium’s histories are told. The introductory panel expressed the project’s goals to chart Native makers’ “influence on the medium.” Both exhibitions featured large-scale artworks to address how Native American makers have taken up a tool often used as a “weapon,” in Comanche curator Paul Chaat Smith’s terms (Smith 122), as instead a medium of cultural and community expressions, of relationality, and of survivance, Gerald Vizenor’s (Minnesota Chippewa Tribe) concept merging survival and resistance (Vizenor).

2With mostly white walls punctuated by occasional solid light and deep blue walls (Fig. 1), the large-scale exhibition charted a thematic array of photographic practices, often with works in monumental scale (and occasionally with larger than life-size figures) situated to absorb the viewer. Good spacing between photographs enabled slow and focused reflection, and the artworks shone in the careful placement and lighting. Scale presented a challenge for much of the historical material, which was smaller than most of the contemporary works and was often double or triple hung in ways that skied some examples and made them more difficult to engage.

Fig. 1. Installation view of In Our Hands. Native Photography, 1890 to Now

Fig. 1. Installation view of In Our Hands. Native Photography, 1890 to Now

Photograph: Minneapolis Institute of Art.

3The exhibition was structured in three main sections, each with multiple galleries, over ten rooms. “A World of Relations” centered a mode of thinking about photography that foregrounds ideas about relationality, a theme repeating throughout the exhibition and its catalogue that marks a departure from more typical photographer-subject relations in histories of photography in favor of “networked, overlapping, and interdependent elements” (section panel). The next section, “Always Leaders,” focused on Native American and First Nations artists’ interventions in, the panel described, “environmental and social justice,” considering photography as a political tool in critiquing settler colonial histories, the continued outcomes of genocide, suppression, boarding schools, and blood quantum, as well as the climate crisis that arises from a capitalist understanding of land use instead of land as relation. In interviews playing in the gallery, Chemehuevi artist Cara Romero articulated the goal of “indigenizing the medium so that it is a tool for healing” and Rhéanne Chartrand (Métis) argued that “ability to express is an act of sovereignty.” The final section, “Always Present,” articulates Native photographers’ “active presence” in the field and introduced the concept of “visual sovereignty,” which emphasizes photographers asserting control over representation often not given in historical picture-taking (section panel; Rickard). This concluding section charted temporalities that elevate futurity as well as Indigenous temporal sovereignty. Replacing the conceit of the singular photographic moment that so often frames understandings of the medium, curator Grey Eagle notes in her catalogue contribution how photographers attempt “to send their worldviews to the future” (Grey Eagle 42). This emphasis points to a complex temporality that enmeshes times and refutes linear conceits of concepts of distinct past, present and future in favor of relational and cyclical time (Rifkin).

4The project was excitingly “multi-vocal” (Yohe, Grey Eagle, and Riley 10) and collaborative in co-creation between the institutional curators, a curatorial council of 14 co-curators, listed in the appendix, and a community advisory group. This method follows a model of curatorial practice “rooted in Native knowledge and practice” (intro label) and “grounded in Indigenous methodologies, the tenets of which include consensus, relationship building, mutual respect, and reciprocity” (Luber 5). This approach was developed in Teri Greeves and Jill Ahlberg Yohe’s Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists monumental traveling exhibition of 2019 (Minneapolis Institute of Art; Smithsonian American Art Museum; Frist Art Museum; and Philbrook). This method reverberates in the vast array of photographs on display, multi-author chat labels by named individuals, and video interviews with artists playing in the gallery. At times, the decentering of singular authorial voice occluded argument. It was not always clear whose voice was speaking, sometimes literally; in the video shown upon entry to the exhibition, artists are identified, but Lakota curator Grey Eagle, who speaks throughout the film, is not named. More broadly, the multiplicity of voices presented a visual and verbal chatter that diluted argument and produced visitor fatigue; in this way, the installation might have benefited from stronger signposting or curatorial handholding towards key interventions. On the other hand, the refusal of a single through-line produced a multi-valent outcome that speaks to the diversity of practice and the impossibility of reducing First Nations, Métis, Inuit, and Native American people or photography to any singular definition or standard. Noting the expansive implications of the concept of survivance, which can seem almost boundless, Smith asks in the catalogue for Speaking with Light, “Is this word, Survivance, worth a thousand pictures? I think so. The pictures say different things, at different times, depending on the viewer” (Smith 126). This kind of dispersed reception, openness to multiple interpretations, and refusal to fix singular explanations marks In Our Hands, operating simultaneously as a limitation and a contribution of the exhibition.

5As an academic interested in dialogues between settler and Native American artists, I missed greater interrogation and self-reflexive articulation that the exhibition and its multi-author catalogue were writing a new history of photography. Yet my experience of the exhibition left me with a sense of certainty that, in the hands of Native makers, epistemologies long assumed to be inherent to the medium become questioned, troubled, and even discarded. As noted above, temporality and relationality embedded in Indigenous knowledge systems fundamentally shift the operations of the photograph. The articulated goal of the project was not to insert Native American photography into a wider canon, but instead to present the broad scope of Native American interventions in photographic practice from the end of the century that invented the medium to today. A refusal to engage with the canon of photographic history or its historiography in a sustained way becomes politically productive. As Chartrand notes in an interview printed in the catalogue, “…we have our own art history. We don’t have to reference the Western canon,” a key take-away that might have been articulated in the exhibition itself (Chartrand and Riley 196). More theoretical articulations raised in the catalogue content often did not make it to the wall labels. Concepts like rematriation, re-visiting, the counterarchive, and storywork, explored in the catalogue in the essays by Veronica Passalacqua, Emily L. Voelker, and Amy Lonetree (Ho-Chunk), might have been leveraged in the wall-text for greater clarity and streamlining of the content and the complex themes it raises. Likewise, the ideas raised by Tom Jones’s (Ho-Chunk) catalogue observation that “when reading a photograph of American Indians, a complicated intersection of history, anthropology, and ethnographic rhetoric is placed on the image, blurring the boundaries between the documentary and artistic expression” (Jones 112) and Lonetree’s assertion that “how one chooses to represent themselves to the camera reflects an evolving notion of culture that is never static” (Lonetree 244) might have been more broadly engaged to consider other photographs in the exhibition. In other words, the work of the catalogue might have provided greater heft towards framing within the content of the exhibition labeling itself.

  • 1 https://www.catherineblackburn.com/new-but-theres-no-scar-i-and-ii.

6Whether the curators help the viewer perceive and understand how this occurs, a new photographic history emerges in palpable ways in the exhibition. Photography as “Indigenous knowledge” means something different than the literal pressing of the button on a photographic apparatus and the taking of a photograph. Will Wilson’s (Citizen of the Navajo Nation) catalogue essay provokes, “What if Indians invented photography?” (Wilson 199). Though not claimed explicitly, my takeaway from the exhibition is that Native makers, at minimum, re-invented the medium itself. Almost every room of the exhibition includes an intermedia artwork that may not traditionally or even primarily be thought of as a photograph. In many artworks, photography shapeshifts as it becomes sculpture, clothing, basketry, performance, and beadwork (Kramer). Ryan Young (Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe) beads on top of the photographic image in We Define Ourselves (2018), a key work at the start of the exhibition. Photographs are woven as baskets by Sarah Sense (Chitimacha/Choctaw) in ways that reframe myth through community languages and ancestral practices and that, for label author Voelker, “obscures the photographic renderings of General George Armstrong Custer and a Hollywood cowgirl, exposing their fiction.” Archival paper splints woven into baskets, Why We Dance (2016), by Shan Goshorn (Eastern Band Cherokee) also transform photographic practice by weaving. Joi T. Arcand (Muskeg Lake Cree Nation) turns photography into dioramas of domestic spaces in the Through That Which is Scene series. Catherine Blackburn (English River First Nation/European) beaded a bruise on the center hide in But There’s No Scar? of 20171, drawing on photography in a transfer process of developing the design, which, the label by Grey Eagle expresses, references the violence and wounds caused by boarding schools. Blackburn then worked with her photographer cousin Tenille Campbell (English River First Nation Dene/Métis) on a transparency over a light box of a woman facing away from the viewer, the hide resting over her shoulders, braids resting over the bruise. The works present a capacious framing of photography that capitalizes on its material and immaterial qualities and that evolves over time and between artworks. Faye Heavy Shield (Kainaiwa Nation, Blackfoot Confederacy Blood Reserve) addresses intergenerational dialogues in Clan (2020) by pairing portraits of relatives wearing dresses she made to match a 1920s photograph of the artist’s grandmother with the dresses themselves, which conjure the bodies which wear them in the center of the gallery space (Fig. 2). In Wendy Red Star’s (Apsàalooke) Amnia, Echo (2021), the photographic image literally enters three-dimensional space and oscillates towards and away from the viewer’s perception as the artist’s great-great grandmother Her Dreams are True, whose portrait is reproduced on thick board, is conjured into the space. In the concentric reiteration of the ancestor, Red Star refutes singular photographic moment, emphasizing the relationality and temporal access of merging in time and space with relatives.

Fig. 2. Faye HeavyShield with Kainaiwa Nation, Blackfoot Confederacy Blood Reserve – Inkjet prints (‘Matri-liminal’) and canvas dresses (‘The Grandmothers’) Clan series, 2020

Fig. 2. Faye HeavyShield with Kainaiwa Nation, Blackfoot Confederacy Blood Reserve – Inkjet prints (‘Matri-liminal’) and canvas dresses (‘The Grandmothers’) Clan series, 2020

Collection of the artist

Photograph: Minneapolis Institute of Art

7In Bently Spang’s (Northern Cheyenne), War Shirt #1 of 1998 (Fig. 3), photography is literalized as Indigenous knowledge. Beyond the production of the images, the artist’s art practice emphasizes the actions taken with those family and personal archives by sewing a warrior shirt made of snapshot prints of family photographs and affixing film strips as feathers or ermine. The shadows created by the shirt echo the hide fringe often found on warrior shirts. Iterations of the photograph from negative to print become akin to the natural materials that imbue warrior shirts with meaning, epistemologies of strength, power, and protection rendered through the family and community networks embedded in the photographs (Horse Capture and Horse Capture). The artist’s words—quoted on Riley’s label to convey “love and all that accompanies it: courage, respect, honor and community”—affirm the resonance with ancestral warrior shirts. Its placement inside of a case and through a square window in the wall, where one can look back upon it from later in the exhibition, recalls the placement of Native American belongings behind glasses in museum cases and highlights the ongoing dialogue between living and ancestral practices produced by the photographic warrior shirt itself.

Fig. 3. Bently Spang, War Shirt #1,1998

Fig. 3. Bently Spang, War Shirt #1,1998

Collection of the artist

Photograph: Minneapolis Institute of Art

8Collage likewise plays a crucial role, especially in challenging the frequent historical role of the medium of photography as a tool for oppression in the system of settler colonialism. Hulleah Tsinhnahijinne (Seminole, Muscogee, Diné) describes that her collage practice comprises “dreams, visions and thoughts that are safely wrapped in stubborn Indigenous persistence prepared for a long journey” (Cited in Passalacqua, 47). Collage enables Jeffrey Thomas (Urban Iroquois/Onondaga) to appropriate and repurpose an Edward Curtis photograph of a baby in a cradleboard out of The Vanishing Race series and into a work about braiding corn leaves as intergenerational Indigenous knowledge as well as Traditional Ecological Knowledge. His comments in the video, “Since I had no existing Indigenous-made paradigm in photography, my quest was to develop one,” reinforces the power and articulation of Indigeneity in his photographic practice. Lakota artist Arthur Amiotte uses collage to take back the commercialized press photographs (Jensen, Paul and Carter; Gidley) of the Wounded Knee Massacre, in which the US 7th Calvary killed between 250 and 300 Miniconjou Lakotas on December 29, 1890, murdering men, women, and children alike present at the site and who tried to flee (Ortiz, 155-57; Ostler, 326-60). Amiotte paints over the copyright that photojournalists etched over Lakota bodies of Uŋpȟáŋ Glešká (Spotted Elk, c. 1826-1890) and the so-called “Medicine Man,” perhaps Shakes Bird, lying dead in the snow, covering exposed genitalia which was scratched out by the negative with a vibrant teal cloth as both figures are accompanied by putti out of the scene. Amiotte also revises the narrative by restitching the press imagery into a patchwork of his own photographs, taken in 1999, of the Wounded Knee site and of St. John’s Episcopal church where individuals convalesced, now relocated to north of the village of Oglala. In this refiguring of the enmeshing of history, belief, and practice, Amiotte produces a new, relational archive. Time and space are also redefined by the collage’s “transposed” views from 1890 and by Amiotte 1999 (Amiotte). Layered as relief sculptures, these collages exceed much western photographic making in ways that emphasize the interventions of the hands of the artists.

9Collectively, the artworks push and pull at the dimensionality of the photographic medium, and, consistently across the exhibition, transform it into something more like sculpture. In this context, “In Our Hands” becomes a crucial title in ways that might have been more fully emphasized by curatorial voices. A key work, one which might have anchored the exhibition, is the photograph of the multigenerational matrilineal hands of Santa Clara Pueblo sculptors, Roxanne Swentzell, Rose B. Simpson and Cedar Simpson by Ungelbah Davila (Diné) (Fig. 4). The figures’ hands mix and mingle together upon a sculpted clay pair of hands, heads leaning towards the medium and towards each other, space open to the photographer and thus the viewer to invite their access to this intergenerational act of making. The entwinement between people and with the medium of the earth centers relationality in human and non-human realms. Futurity emerges in Davila’s interview for the catalogue, noting that “it’s exciting to think what [Cedar Simpson’s] going to be creating in the future” (Yohe 225). Davila continues, “Notice the hands in the photograph, because with this kind of art, it always comes back to the hands. Creating with the hands” (Yohe 225). Reverberating as the hands in ceramic work depicted in Davila’s photograph, photography becomes sculpture in the hands of the artists in the exhibition, often both literally, and also, in leveraging malleability of the medium, figuratively.

Fig. 4. Ungelbah Davila, Roxanne, Rose & Cedar, from Indigenous Artist and Leader series

Fig. 4. Ungelbah Davila, Roxanne, Rose & Cedar, from Indigenous Artist and Leader series

Inkjet print, 61 x 91.4 cm. © 2022 Ungelbah Davila-Shivers

10CURATORIAL COUNCIL

Rhéanne Chartrand (Métis)

Mique’l Icesis Dangeli (Tsimshian Nation of Metlakatla, Alaska)

Rosalie Favell (Metis)

Tom Jones (Ho-Chunk)

Amy Lonetree (Ho-Chunk)

Shelley Niro (Mohawk)

Veronica Passalacqua

Jami Powell (Osage)

Jolene Rickard (Tuscarora)

Cara Romero (Chemehuevi)

Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie (Seminole/Muscogee/Diné)

Emily Voelker

Laura Wexler

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Bibliographie

Will Wilson

AMIOTTE, Arthur. Letter to Robert Donnelly, 4 January 2007, Amiotte studio records.

CHARTRAND, Rhéanne, and Casey RILEY. “Researching the Legacy of the Native Indian/Inuit Photographers’ Association (NIIPA): an Interview with Rhéanne Chartrand and Casey Riley.” In Our Hands: Native Photography, 1890 to Now. By Jill Ahlberg Yohe, Jaida Grey Eagle, and Casey Riley, Eds. Minneapolis: Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2023, p. 177-196.

GIDLEY, Mick. “Visible and Invisible Scars of Wounded Knee.” Picturing Atrocity: Photography in Crisis. Ed. Geoffrey Batchen, Mick Gidley, Nancy K. Miller, and Jay Prosser, London: Reaktion Books, 2012, p. 25-38.

GREY EAGLE, Jaida. “To the Future.” In Our Hands: Native Photography, 1890 to Now. By Jill Ahlberg Yohe, Jaida Grey Eagle, and Casey Riley, Eds. Minneapolis: Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2023, p. 41-42.

HORSE CAPTURE, Joe D., and George P. HORSE CAPTURE. Beauty: Honor and tradition: the Legacy of Plains Indian Shirts. Washington, DC: National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, 2001.

JENSEN, Richard E., Eli PAUL, and John E. Carter, Eyewitness at Wounded Knee. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991.

JONES, Tom. “A Poolaw Photo, Pictures by an Indian.” In Our Hands: Native Photography, 1890 to Now. By Jill Ahlberg Yohe, Jaida Grey Eagle, and Casey Riley, Eds. Minneapolis: Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2023, p. 109-113.

KRAMER, Karen Russell, ed. Shapeshifting: Transformations in Native American Art. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

LONETREE, Amy. “‘Indigenous Storywork’ and Native American Photography.” In our Hands: Native Photography, 1890 to Now. By Jill Ahlberg Yohe, Jaida Grey Eagle, and Casey Riley, Eds. Minneapolis: Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2023, p. 237-245.

LUBER, Katherine Crawford. “Director’s Forward.” In Our Hands: Native Photography, 1890 to Now. By Jill Ahlberg Yohe, Jaida Grey Eagle, and Casey Riley, Eds. Minneapolis: Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2023, p. 5-6.

ORTIZ, Roxanne Dunbar. An Indigenous People’s History of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press, 2014.

OSTLER, Jeffrey. The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

PASSALACQUA, Veronica. “Rematriating Photography.” In Our Hands: Native Photography, 1890 to Now. By Jill Ahlberg Yohe, Jaida Grey Eagle, and Casey Riley, Eds. Minneapolis: Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2023, p. 45-53.

RICKARD, Jolene. “Visualizing Sovereignty in the Time of Biometric Sensors.” South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 110, no. 2, Spring 2011, p. 465-482.

RIFKIN, Mark. Beyond Settler Time: Temporal Sovereignty and Indigenous Self-Determination. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.

SMITH, Paul Chaat. “Everything is Different. Everything is the Same.” Speaking with Light: Contemporary Indigenous Photography. By John Rohrbach, and Will Wilson, Eds. Santa Fe: Radius Books, 2022, p. 121-127.

VIZENOR, Gerald. “Aesthetics of Survivance: Literary Theory and Practice.” Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence. Ed. Gerald Vizenor. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008, p. 1-23.

VOELKER, Emily. “Rosalie Favell’s Photographic Revisitations: Indigenous Family Archives & Historical Memory.” In Our Hands: Native Photography, 1890 to Now. By Jill Ahlberg Yohe, Jaida Grey Eagle, and Casey Riley, Eds. Minneapolis: Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2023, p. 137-145.

WILSON, Will. “On Ten Years of the Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange.” In Our Hands: Native Photography, 1890 to Now. By Jill Ahlberg Yohe, Jaida Grey Eagle, and Casey Riley, Eds. Minneapolis: Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2023, p. 199-202.

YOHE, Jill Ahlberg. “‘We Make that Connection’: Eight Diné (Navajo) Photographers.” In Our Hands: Native Photography, 1890 to Now. By Jill Ahlberg Yohe, Jaida Grey Eagle, and Casey Riley, Eds. Minneapolis: Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2023, p. 211-227.

YOHE, Jill Ahlberg, Jaida GREY EAGLE, and Casey RILEY. “Introduction and Acknowledgements.” In Our Hands: Native Photography, 1890 to Now. By Jill Ahlberg Yohe, Jaida Grey Eagle, and Casey Riley, Eds. Minneapolis: Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2023, p. 11-14.

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Notes

1 https://www.catherineblackburn.com/new-but-theres-no-scar-i-and-ii.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1. Installation view of In Our Hands. Native Photography, 1890 to Now
Légende Photograph: Minneapolis Institute of Art.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/docannexe/image/22658/img-1.png
Fichier image/png, 2,5M
Titre Fig. 2. Faye HeavyShield with Kainaiwa Nation, Blackfoot Confederacy Blood Reserve – Inkjet prints (‘Matri-liminal’) and canvas dresses (‘The Grandmothers’) Clan series, 2020
Légende Collection of the artist
Crédits Photograph: Minneapolis Institute of Art
URL http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/docannexe/image/22658/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 276k
Titre Fig. 3. Bently Spang, War Shirt #1,1998
Légende Collection of the artist
Crédits Photograph: Minneapolis Institute of Art
URL http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/docannexe/image/22658/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 266k
Titre Fig. 4. Ungelbah Davila, Roxanne, Rose & Cedar, from Indigenous Artist and Leader series
Légende Inkjet print, 61 x 91.4 cm. © 2022 Ungelbah Davila-Shivers
URL http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/docannexe/image/22658/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 474k
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Emily C. Burns, « In our Hands: Native Photography, 1890 to Now, October 22, 2023 - January 14, 2024, Minneapolis Institute of Art »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2024, consulté le 12 juillet 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/22658 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/11x2r

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Emily C. Burns

Associate Professor of Art History and Director, Charles M. Russell Center for the Study of Art of the American West, University of Oklahoma

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