There’s no mistaking the message when you first walk into the Denver Art Museum’s Gallagher Family Gallery. It’s written in all-capitalized red letters that cover an entire wall:
“Indigenous contemporary artists have reclaimed the conversation of how their cultures and their lives are depicted,” it says. “With imagination and insight, these artists demand that their existence, perspectives and troubling histories be recognized.”
Beyond those words, visitors are confronted by a compelling series of photographs, videos, textiles and art installations that explore history, loss, identity and misrepresentation through the Indigenous perspective. The point, says DAM Curator of Photography Eric Paddock, is to upend the false narrative that white America generally believes to be true about all aspects of Indigenous people – largely because white America wrote that narrative.
One photo by Jeremy Dennis shows a contemporary white man casually sitting on his front steps, oblivious to the five large arrows embedded into his blood-stained shirt. A nearby performance-art video by Erica Lord shows a white woman singing a racist rhyme from her childhood while being repeatedly slapped in the face by an emotionless Indigenous woman. Both, in their ways, are meant to represent not only the history of violence endured by Indigenous people but how that brutality has been casually normalized in everyday American culture.
The exhibition, “Speaking with Light: Contemporary Indigenous Photography,” is believed to be the first major museum survey to highlight Indigenous photographers over the past three decades. It features works by more than 30 contemporary Indigenous photographers representing 50 nations in the Americas and beyond. And with this exhibit, say curators John Rohrbach and Will Wilson, “they take back control of how their cultures and lives are depicted, and provide a framework for artistic sovereignty.”
The exhibition, which will be on display at the Denver Art Museum through May 22, debuted late last year at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth. And Dakota Hoska, the DAM’s Associate Curator of Native Art, could not be happier that Denver is just the second city to see it. She’s a Lakota woman enrolled in the Pine Ridge Reservation.
“It is important for Indigenous people to be seen here in Denver,” Hoska said. “I think anytime that people are getting to know us as Native people better, it's a win-win for all of us. It promotes understanding, and it promotes compassion, and it promotes people becoming allies. And that’s all good. But I'm really excited about our Native community having access to this exhibition. We have a huge Native community here in Denver, and a lot of times maybe people didn't see themselves here at the museum. So I think having this kind of show right here and available to so many natives living in the Denver area is really important.”
The far-reaching exhibition references the ongoing epidemic of disappearing Indigenous women; the environmental discretion of sacred Indigenous lands; the excising of Indigenous culture through educational assimilation; the unsung contributions of Indigenous military veterans; and the degrading appropriation and exploitation of Indian culture from sports mascots to motel names to tacky souvenirs.
It also owns the sticky contradiction that major museums (like the DAM) routinely withdraw artifacts from cultures all over the world and benefit from them.
But the last impression visitors are left with is an infectious short video called "Smiling Indians," compiled in 2011 by future "Reservation Dogs" creator Sterlin Harjo with series writers Ryan RedCorn and Bobby Wilson. It simply shows contemporary Indigenous people laughing and smiling as an antidote to dominant media portrayals of Indigenous people as stoic and humorless. The creators have sardonically dedicated the video to Old West photographer Edward S. Curtis. "His photographs of North American Indians were published in the 1920s and '30s as a kind of elegy to what he considered to be a vanishing race,” said Paddock. “But he wasn't exactly correct in all of his ethnographic details, which contributed to widespread stereotyping of Indigenous people."
Paddock believes the video is “a nice way to end, because there is a lot of sadness and anger throughout the exhibition,” he said.
To Hoska, what's most important is that the pieces are allowed to speak for themselves. That’s pretty much the whole point of the exhibition. “It is important that a person that’s not Indigenous doesn't try to speak for Native communities,” she said.
Here are four representative examples from “Speaking with Light”:
'Tonto’s TV Script Revision'
- Photographer: Larry McNeil (Tlingit and Nisga’a)
- Inkjet print, 2006
In Larry McNeil’s "gnarly" (Paddock's word) pop-culture power reversal, Tonto takes control of the popular Old West story. Deputized by the First Nations Tribal Court, Sheriff Tonto has decapitated child abuser Richard Pratt, founder of the Carlisle Indian Boarding Project. Here it's the Lone Ranger looking on as the sidekick. He's holding a revised script and pointing his gun at Edward S. Curtis, the frontier photographer mentioned above.
'Indian Man on the Bus'
- Photographer: Zig Jackson (Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara)
- Inkjet print, 1994
- Amon Carter Museum of American Art
Jackson transforms an everyday scene into a performance of identity by presenting himself as an “Indian everyman” on a San Francisco bus. Jackson strikes a commanding presence as if standing against erasure through his regalia and authoritative gaze. Jackson has said that showing himself in a public situation where no one notices him despite his feather headdress demonstrates how, in many respects, the Native American remains invisible in contemporary America.
- Photographer Cara Romero (Chemehuevi)
- Inkjet print, 2015
Romero has created a series of photographs that show an immersed environment where the Native American figures are portrayed under the surface of water, still and suspended in a drowned landscape. The subjects are Hopi dancers who swam while she photographed. Romero is from a tribe that was flooded out of its ancestral lands when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers forcefully dragged people out of their homes to create Arizona's Lake Havasu, which left their homeland underwater. "This photograph is a way of evoking that loss and evoking the suspension of memory and of spirit in the waters over those homelands," Paddock said. Now, Romero said, "Lake Havasu feels haunted.” Because the water remembers.
- Artist: Jolene Rickard (Tuscarora)
- Installation, 2006
According to Iroquois folklore, before there were people on Earth, Sky Woman was the mother goddess who descended to Earth by falling through a hole in the sky. As she fell, a flock of waterbirds spotted her, caught her on their backs and as they flew her to safety on the back of a turtle, she sprinkled plant life and sunlight on the Earth. This remarkable two-piece installation consists of a photograph on the wall depicting sunlight on open water that ends with a power plant belching some steam on the far side of the bay. On the floor there is a circular photograph of a woman’s eye looking up through cracked mud, and the whole thing is wrapped with vines that Ricard collected in her community's territory in Louisiana.