Historic Native American Photographs Influence Contemporary Artists

Arikara Medicine Ceremony - The Ducks , c. 1908, Edwards S. Curtis (reprint of photograph)/courtesy of The Philbrook Museum

Arikara Medicine Ceremony - The Ducks, c. 1908, Edwards S. Curtis (reprint of photograph)/courtesy of The Philbrook Museum

The concept for The Philbrook Museum’s exhibit Shifting Focus: Historical Photographs, Contemporary Art, emerged when one of the museum’s curators noticed a thread running through a variety of the museum’s native American art collection. The photograph—as an artifact and a cultural marker of race—provided the language for various contemporary artists in their work. In some pieces, a specific photograph is referenced, while in others, a more general reliance on a body of photographs becomes a touchstone for the viewer. In both cases, the exhibition, housed at Philbrook’s downtown contemporary art space, provides a compelling look into the interaction between different art forms and assumptions about race and identity.

The exhibit is more than novelty or idiosyncratic observation between different types of media. It’s a deliberate and thoughtful set of juxtapositions which, when considered against the backdrop of Oklahoma’s history, force the viewer to rethink conceptions about both art and its connection to a culture. I confess to some irritation that the photographs on display are reprints (sometimes not particularly good ones) of original photographs, and when I discussed this with museum staff, the staff member indicated that the issue was debated rather extensively before the show was installed. Ultimately, the images—which were in the public domain—were seen as too important to leave out even if the museum did not own or have access to the originals, so they chose to include them. The choice, despite my reservations, was wise. In particular I think of Shan Goshorn’s “Stolen,” a beautiful basket woven of with image and text that attempts to give voice to the anonymous photograph of students at any number of Indian schools. Recent revelations about the nature of these schools in Canada make the basket, and the image, all the more poignant. Other works will connect readily with viewers interested in the ways that graphic design and illustration have influenced contemporary art. Richard Ray Whitman’s “Do Indian Artists Go to Santa Fe When They Die” moves beyond Warhol pop imagery and toward the bundled graphic collages and lithographs that populate any number of fine art websites these days, and yet, it was pulled in 1989. 

Indians #19 , Fritz Scholder/courtesy Philbrook Museum

Indians #19, Fritz Scholder/courtesy Philbrook Museum

The exhibition is worth a look if you’re in the Tulsa, Oklahoma area, and if you’re not, the heart of the exhibit nonetheless deserves consideration. While photographers may be disappointed in the lack of actual historical photographs, the exhibit challenges visitors to think through the ways that photography has shaped cultural conceptions of “the native” (in all of its many meanings), and it strikes me as a way for those whose images have been “taken” (metaphorically or otherwise) to assume agency in their own histories.  The artists have, in other words, remade the images on their own terms.

Shifting Focus: Historical Photographs, Contemporary Art is on view at The Philbrook Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma through April 26, 2015. 

Roger Thompson is the Senior Editor for Don’t Take Pictures. His critical writings have appeared in exhibition catalogues and he has written extensively on self-taught artists with features in Raw Vision and The Outsider. He currently resides in Long Island, New York and is a Professor at Stony Brook University.