The Norman Transcript

March 14, 2014

Museum photo exhibit explores native identity, politics

by Hannah Cruz
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — A new photography exhibit at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art is working to break down cultural stereotypes and start a dialogue on what it means to be “native.”

“Our People, Our Land, Our Images” is a touring exhibit featuring 51 historical and contemporary photographs by 26 indigenous photographers from North America, South America, the Middle East and New Zealand.

FJJMA James T. Bialac Assistant Curator of Native American and Non-Western Art Heather Ahtone said the exhibition explores issues indigenous peoples across the world face, including similarities and differences each group or artist has dealing with identity, traditions, politics and histories. Perhaps most importantly, she said, the exhibit explores native issues through the eyes of native people and is curated by natives.

“As a museum, using images that explore those issues, helps to at least further the dialogue,” she said. “We may not resolve it, but if we can help further the dialogue, we may one day get to a place where those things ... embrace the diversity rather than trying to homogenize it all.”

The exhibition is organized by Native American and guest curator Veronica Passalacqua of the C.N. Gorman Museum at the University of California, Davis, and is a program of ExhibitsUSA, a national division of Mid-America Arts Alliance, with the Oklahoma Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Included photographs feature a range of subjects and represent a variety of time periods and cultures. While some images are more journalistic in nature, others include double-exposed images, posed photographs with models or photoshopped pictures to include a variety of images or words. Ahtone said the result is that some images give subtle insight into native life, while others offer direct commentary on a variety of social or political issues.

Ahtone said the images tell a story by the way they are laid out in relation to each other, highlighting similarities and differences between each native culture. The series of images as a collection helps identify stories or struggles each community deals with.

“While cultures are obviously unique there are similarities between living in a dominate society that has one view and having a different world view,” Ahtone said. “Even if those other world views are not compatible there are similar experiences of that.”

Many images explore the idea of dual identity and how native peoples around the world handle stereotypes in their way of living or dress, Ahtone said.

“A lot of time people are looking to indigenous people, and including Native American people, in that maybe a particular look is going to tell you who that person is,” she said. “... I think that’s one of the things about identity that this exhibition kind of gets to is, it’s no longer that phenotypic manner of identifying people but it’s also the ways that they might seek to create visual signals of who they are.”

One historical image shows a group of Native American women dressed in the contemporary clothing of 1902. Ahtone said the photograph starts a difficult conversation about visual cues related to Native Americans — there’s no visual references to clue the viewer in that they’re looking at Native Americans, but does that make them any less Native American? As Ahtone asked, can we allow people culturally to be something that evolves without needing to look a certain way?

“I think we can see that was already a question that could be raised 100 years ago,” Ahtone said. “Why are we still dealing with the same d*** question?”

Sidebar:

“Our People, Our Land, Our Images” is on display April 4 to May 25 at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, 555 Elm Ave.

One of the artists included in the exhibit, Shan Goshorn, Native American artist and activist from Tulsa, will be giving a gallery talk 6:30 p.m. April 11 at the museum.

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