We are living in a moment when artists of color are asking if their only route to art world legitimacy is to make the work that a predominately White art world expects them to make. Current anti-racist thought maintains that it is not the duty of marginalized or otherwise disenfranchised people to do the emotional labor of explaining their historical contexts and grounds for grievances to those who won’t do the work of trying to understand it themselves. They are asking: if I am Indigenous, am I only allowed to make work that is about indigeneity?

Ho-Chunk artist Tom Jones sees it more simply: regardless of whether the art looks “Indian” enough, “American Indian art is still Native … because it is coming from Native thought and upbringing.” Jones has been persistently making art about and for the Ho-Chunk Nation for more than two decades. In the past year, the art world has begun to notice. With work currently on view in statewide and nationally recognized venues, the artist’s many trains of thought concerning Native identity have surfaced within the walls of PWIs, requesting acknowledgment and reckoning.

While he maintains that his primary audience is the Ho-Chunk people, his most recent body of work, Strong Unrelenting Spirits, has a mass appeal that extends beyond the Ho-Chunk Nation. Set against stark black backgrounds, Jones creates life-sized portraits of Ho-Chunk members and then laboriously hand-beads traditional Ho-Chunk floral designs around his subjects, creating what he refers to as a kind of “aura.” Beginning with a portrait of his mother, JoAnn Jones, and most recently completing a portrait of Bella Falcon, a young Ho-Chunk woman from the Bear clan, Jones has been increasing the scale of his ambition; the larger portraits take 120 hours or more to bead. Ever mindful of the legacy of Edward Curtis and his portrait series The North American Indian, Jones finds ways of creating images that speak to the individual within the collective, instead of individuals as collectives.

Tom Jones, “JoAnn Jones,” from the series Strong Unrelenting Spirits (2015) 

Many of Jones’s subjects wear traditional Native dress, though there are notable exceptions of t-shirts, khakis, suspenders, overalls, and camouflage motifs. The sitters wear what they want to the session, something Jones’s portraits share with Charles Van Schaik, a 19th-century photographer who photographed the Ho-Chunk people not as cultural props, but as paying customers having portraits taken for personal use. As with Van Schaik, Ho-Chunk people arrive at Jones’s studio with an idea of how they want to be seen. In most portraits the sitter looks directly at the viewer, disallowing viewers to impose a cultural projection without the subject “seeing” them do it.

One popular mode of interpreting portraits is that a portrait of another is also a self-portrait of the artist. If that is true of Jones, his portraits reveal a searching and generous nature, conscious and confident in who the sitters are, but with a simultaneous awareness that they are being assessed by the outside world. In an essay Jones wrote for People of the Big Voice: Photographs of Ho-Chunk Families by Charles Van Schaik, he addresses this double consciousness:

There is an unstated complexity in the way a photograph is read by individuals from different cultures and backgrounds. Each time a photograph is encountered, the viewer will decipher the image with constructed imagination of constructed knowledge. There are also the intentions of the photographer and subject. What has the photographer decided to show us and what has the sitter decided to reveal? The interpretation that we place on the image comes from our understanding of what the people in the photographs have experienced.

Tom Jones, “Trenton and Roger Littlegeorge,” from the series Medicine Lodge Portraits (2011)

What do we know of what a Ho-Chunk person has experienced? What are we willing to let ourselves know? Do we know that the tribe was forcibly removed from their ancestral homelands in Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, and Minnesota 13 times between 1832 and 1874? Or that as a condition of the right to remain on their lands in 1874, they had to renounce and abandon tribal rituals and relations, and that outside photographs of forbidden Native practices were used as evidence to arrest and eject people? This latter historical fact directly relates to bans by tribal elders on photographing traditional and private ceremonies, although Jones has told Hyperallergic that the ubiquity of cell phone cameras has been shifting tribal perceptions on this, especially among younger members. Whether or not permissions by Ho-Chunk elders to photograph rites and ceremonies is granted or assumed, it stands to reason that there is a large gap between what we think we know and what we should already know.

Jones does at times embrace the task of educating the non-Native viewer. He draws a line between ongoing work that he makes for the Ho-Chunk and more conceptual work that has a definitive completion point, with the latter speaking more generally about Native experience. In these more speculative series, non-Native viewers find themselves embedded within, often in, postures of implication. In the series Remnants, Jones pairs Native casino carpet patterns with glass engravings of historical — and often racist — representations of Native people. Appropriated drawings and engravings from 19th-century publications are used in diptychs and triptychs that address issues of cultural genocide, forced religious conversion, White assimilation, and not least of all, White fantasies of Indigenous people.

Surprisingly, Jones says that he has been sitting on the majority of work he’s made of and for the Ho-Chunk out of tribal deference, and it’s possible that it will never be seen. When asked whether or not he hopes to exhibit that work someday, he answered, “It’s not really important to me that the outside world sees it.” Much of it exists as future documents for Ho-Chunk members, as elements of an archive. Conversely, in work like Strong Unrelenting Spirits, Jones sees his role as creating visibility for his people. “That visibility is important to me. I think about the young kids, the teenagers, and I think being able to see yourself represented in art is so powerful.”

Tom Jones, “He Touched Him Good,” from the series Remnants (2017)
Tom Jones, “Raymond Goodbear,” from the series Strong Unrelenting Spirits (2019) 

Tom Jones is currently in Speaking with Light at the Denver Art Museum (100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, Denver, Colorado), through May 22, curated by John Rohrbach and Will Wilson; Native America: In Translation at the Milwaukee Art Museum (700 North Art Museum Drive, Milwaukee, Wisconsin), through June 25, curated by Wendy Red Star; and Water Memories at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan), through April 2, curated by Patricia Marroquin Norby (Purépecha).

Stacy J. Platt is a Colorado-based writer, artist, and educator. The founder of photobook addict, her writing has appeared in photo-eye, Don’t Take Pictures, the Society for Photography Education’s...