Why an Apache Artist’s Photos Are Inextricable from His Activism

Standing Fox, a leader of the Apache Stronghold movement, talks about how activism plays an important part in his life as an Apache artist.

Standing Fox, “Untitled” (all photos courtesy the artist unless otherwise noted)

On Sunday, January 29, Social Practice Queens hosted a conversation at Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s “Peace Table,” currently on view as part of her survey Maintenance Art at the Queens Museum. The talk, “Protecting Our Nature and Our Sacred Land at Oak Flat,” was led by Wendsler Nosie Sr. and Standing Fox, two important leaders of the Apache Stronghold movement, and focused on the case of Oak Flat, the national forest land sacred to the Apache that is being threatened by a controversial mining concession.

The Peace Table is a circular glass table, slightly suspended from the ground, that seats 16 people. It was first created for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles in 1997 as a response to the LA riots in a show titled Unburning Freedom Hall, and has since been a catalyst for community-led conversations on peace and the maintenance of culture. Beginning with her 1969 Maintenance Art Manifesto, Ukeles has been emphasizing for nearly four decades that maintenance work is an imperative art form. Perhaps protecting sacred land is the maintenance work that we as citizens must do for our culture at large.

On view during the conversation at the Peace Table was a series of photographs and paintings by Standing Fox. As a leading figure in the Apache Stronghold movement, his murals, photographs, and paintings have been used to promote the movement and educate people in the area about the situation at Oak Flat for the past three years. His paintings are graphic, boldly colored, and inspired by Apache symbolism, tradition, and history. His black-and-white photographs provide a close look at contemporary life on the reservation coupled with traditional Apache ceremonial imagery. The contemporary and traditional Apache nation, the sacred landscape, and the protest to protect the sacred are all found within each cinematic image. On view through March 4, Fox’s works are accompanied by landscape photographs of Oak Flat by Floor Grootenhuis and, full disclosure, myself.

Following the “Peace Table” discussion, I interviewed Standing Fox on the role of his artwork in the movement, and how activism and education play an important part in his life as an Apache artist.

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Standing Fox, “Untitled”

Erin Turner: Why do you primarily create portraits, and what is your relationship to the Apache people in your work?

Standing Fox: I have a very personal connection to these people, because they are my ancestors, they are my people. Geronimo, different warriors, and the women from our culture, such as “White Painted Woman,” who is the girl you see wearing the buckskin. I come from a line of Apache chiefs. Our great grandfather was Chief Nosie, a chief of the Bedonkohe Apache, of the Chiricahua Apache people. I feel that it’s my duty as a creative person to document my people. I believe that this is a part of the healing and education that the world needs. Many of my photographs have come to me previously in a dream, and I believe that I need to show these parts of the Apache culture.

ET: Can you talk about the importance of dreams in your life and artwork?

Standing Fox, “Camp and Mom”

SF: I was raised by my great grandmother. She was a healer, a very strong medicine woman. She had visions constantly. Ever since I was a young boy she talked about the things that are happening now, and told me that I would need to prepare myself. As Indian people, we take our direction through dreams, not from human reaction. At a very early age I was taught about the power of dreams, about the Apache way, the Indian way. An image of someone will come to me in a dream, and later I will see it happening and photograph that moment. Sometimes I dream about a certain past figure or ancestor and I will draw them as they came to me in my dream, or I will find old photographs of them and recreate that image. I want to be here for these dreams.

ET: Your photographs are as much portraits of people as they are of landscapes. What is the relationship that you have with the landscape?

SF: I was brought up in this area of Arizona where all things Apache were created. Looking out at the landscape I know where I was created, what family was created there, what type of Apache was created over there, what spiritual being was created there, who is from the earth, the canes, the river, the lake, under the lake, on top of that mountain over there. This earth helped shape our people, and in everything that we do, throughout all the ceremonies, we acknowledge the ground. My photographs communicate this relationship.

Standing Fox, “Untitled”

ET: You are a member of the Apache Stronghold, an activist group that is currently fighting to save the sacred Apache ground of Oak Flat. What is the relationship between your artwork and your work as an activist?

SF: There is no separation between my artwork and my activism. I make images of our culture, our people, and our ceremonies. Oak Flat is the place where our culture, people, and ceremonies originate. Telling the story of Oak Flat will also help to protect Oak Flat, which in turn will protect our people, our culture. Right now you can see this movement amongst people, I think it’s calling all people.

Standing Fox, “Crown Dancer”

ET: Can you talk about the importance of portraying your own people through ceremony and tradition?

SF: I feel that I am here for a reason, and at an early age I began documenting and asking elders to tell me our history. I see a lot of young people really struggling to know their ways, and I would like my work to be a reference to them. I put a lot of thought into what I show, and what it can teach the young Apaches today, in a similar way as I was taught.

Before businesses, before government, forced assimilation attempts by the US put churches on our reservation. Only a few families kept their traditional ways because they weren’t allowed to pray. Medicine people were killed off, so these ceremonies began to be held in the hills and mountains away from sight. This is how our culture survived. We still battle this today, within our reservation. Christianity has played a huge part in dividing our people. My work is very educational amongst my own people because we are clarifying the importance of our culture to the Christian Apache community.

Standing Fox in front of his paintings and photographs (image courtesy Andreia Mororó)

ET: Are there certain things you choose not to photograph because it’s not meant to be documented?

SF: I always shoot what I know I can shoot, and I always ask the medicine people. They know the importance of documenting. They have seen me grow into the person that I am today, and they respect what I do. They know that I will not reveal certain things that are not meant to be out there yet.

ET: What do you hope to communicate to non-Indians through your work?

Standing Fox, “Untitled”

SF: I think that the people in the US tend to forget how rich the culture is on this land. A lot of people go out of this country to volunteer and help other people in need. I want them to know that there are issues in their backyard, on their land. I think it’s very important to know who the original people are here, and to have respect for them. We need help too. I want to show the beauty within this land. I want people to see more than just images of Indians protesting, more than an Indian on Instagram holding up a picture of a poster saying WE ARE STILL HERE. We of course have to do this in order for us to protect the culture and the way, but I feel that it is my job to push the beauty of our culture to the world, by saying this is what we are about, and this is what we are trying to protect.

A Social Practice Queens Discussion at the Peace Table took place at the Queens Museum (New York City Building, Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens) on January 29. 

Protecting Our Nature and Our Sacred Land: Images of Oak Flat continues at the Queens Museum (New York City Building, Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens) through March 4. 

The Apache Stronghold is celebrating its third year of occupation at Oak Flat with its annual march on February 17–19, just outside of Superior, Arizona.

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