DENVER — It is remarkable that experiencing an exhibition composed entirely of contemporary Indigenous art would be remarkable in 2023, but the fact is that these shows are just beginning to happen at major American museums. Speaking with Light: Contemporary Indigenous Photography, on view at the Denver Art Museum through May 22, is a rare traveling exhibition of Indigenous artists, conceived and staged at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas, before its current venue. Co-curated by John Rohrbach of the Amon Carter and Diné artist Will Wilson, the show is divided into three distinct conceptual sections (along with a prologue): Survivance, Nation, and Indigenous Visualities. Each part examines what it means to be an Indigenous artist working today.
The notion of audience is palpable here, especially in the first section, Survivance, which includes work by nearly half of the exhibit’s roster. Survivance is a concept first articulated in an Indigenous sense by Gerald Vizenor, an Anishinaabe scholar who understood the term to mean a continuance of native stories that share the qualities of renunciations of dominance, tragedy, and victimry. The images in Survivance position the inheritors of settler culture as the recipients of historical and cultural reckoning while addressing an Indigenous audience with a subtler message: we are now in the process of reclaiming our own representation. The 16 artists employ humor, shock, and mundane facts, often simultaneously, in their work.
Erica Lord’s single-channel video, “Redman” (2005), speaks memorably and boldly to those two different audiences. Two women, one White, one Indigenous, face each other against a white background. Noelle Mason, a White artist, sings and enacts a racist campfire song, once popularized at Cub and Brownie troop gatherings. As she pantomimes wearing “feathers in our headbands” and fighting with bows and arrows, Lord slaps her across the face, staining it with red paint. With each slap, Mason recovers and recommences, while the paint accumulates across her face. At the end of the four-minute piece, Mason confronts the viewer literally “red faced” as well as bleeding from the nose, her eyes watering with tears. She then defiantly sings the song through to the end again, with renewed gusto. While simply performed and conceptualized, the work stuns by commenting upon so many complicated strands of what it is to be Othered, the “wholesomeness” of the children’s camp song being anything but. As it centers White arrogance, it proposes what response these songs’ writers and singers deserve from the people the songs are about.
Rewriting and re-framing history takes a comical and literal turn with Larry McNeil‘s “Tonto’s TV Script Revision” (2009), in which Sheriff Tonto punishes Richard Pratt, the founder of the Carlisle Indian Boarding School, by dunking his face into a basin of water. Inspired by prison designs, the boarding school was one of many that abused and indoctrinated Indigenous children, advocating a platform of assimilation. Images of Carlisle’s child residents and a photo of the artist himself are framed on the wall behind this scene, functioning as a conscious reminder of the consequences of Pratt’s sins. Shan Goshorn‘s sculpture “Remaining a Child” (2017), also speaks about the infamous Carlisle facility, utilizing a traditional Cherokee “coffin”-shaped basket made of bone X-rays, vellum, and artificial sinew. Handwritten names of children buried at the Carlisle cemetery wrap around the top and bottom of the basket, and the “mountain” basket pattern links the children with their homelands. The bodies of 215 child residents of the school were discovered buried in eight cemeteries on the school grounds.
Nation, the exhibition’s second chapter, speaks about the long history of military service to which Indigenous people have subjected themselves, most notably in Tom Jones‘s photographic series Ho-Chunk Veterans. The images feature what Jones refers to as “memorial poles” for every fallen service member, each consisting of a framed photograph of the tribal member as well as a small bowl of offerings, including their favorite cigarette brands, lighters, and other ephemera. The title “Nation” also refers to sovereign and separate Indigenous nations, movingly communicated in Alan Michelson‘s video “Mespat” (2001). Projected onto a screen laboriously constructed of turkey feathers, the camera continuously pans the 3.5-mile shoreline of Newtown Creek, an estuary dividing Brooklyn and Queens. Mespat refers to a passage along the route known to the native Lenape as “bad water place,” and from which they were displaced by European colonists in 1642. Ambient sound accompanies the video, providing the sensation of bobbing along the waters ourselves, watching the urban landscape shift and turn in real time.
The final section, Indigenous Visualities, is a celebration of self-representation. The works here describe how distinct and varied these ideas of reframed portrayals are — as varied as the 15 nations shown. A painterly, gorgeously introspective standout is Cree artist Kimowan Metchewais‘s undated “Cold Lake.” Layered with photographs, paper stained by rust and tobacco, and “Atakamew-Sakihikan” — the Cree name for the Cold Lake First Nations Reserve in Alberta, Canada, written in western Cree syllabics — the piece hums with the communion and quiet of dawn. Unique from other works on view, “Cold Lake” does not perform the act of speaking to multiple audiences at once, with different messages for each. Expressing the quality of visual sovereignty, it beckons with a signal of blessing, gesturing for all to enter into it.
Speaking with Light: Contemporary Indigenous Photography continues at the Denver Art Museum (100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, Denver, Colorado) through May 22. The exhibition was curated by John Rohrbach, of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, and Navajo/Diné artist and curator Will Wilson.