Photography From Native Viewpoints
Considering That it Functions by Capturing Moments in Time and Displaying Images as They Actually Appear, photography is a surprisingly versatile medium – what winds up in the finished picture depends on the person holding the camera and reflects his or her intention and viewpoint, whether that’s, “This puppy is adorable” or “These mining projects are ruining this landscape.”
However many times you see something yourself, there’s value in seeing it through someone else’s eyes (or lens), especially if that other viewpoint saw it first. That’s the crux of a traveling photography exhibit opening this month at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art:
“Our People, Our Land, Our Images” presents a collection of indigenous photographers’
looks at their own homelands.
The images in this exhibition explore their creators’ connections to their land, community and traditions – in the form of 51 works by 26 artists native to regions as far-flung as Peru, Iraq, New Zealand and the United States, including Jennie Ross Cobb (Cherokee), the earliest known female Native American photographer.
The traveling exhibition was organized by Veronica Passalacqua of the University of California at Davis, and is a program of ExhibitsUSA; Fred Jones assistant curator Heather Ahtone helped bring it to Norman. She explains, “I was interested in the exhibition because it includes artists from Oklahoma, but also broadens the scope of indigenous art through a global perspective. I loved the idea of having contemporary photography from Oklahoma in dialogue with art from across the United States, Canada, New Zealand and the Middle East in our gallery.”
Ahtone also emphasizes the diversity of attitudes on display in the exhibit, as well as physical places. As reflected in the artists’ statements that accompany each image, “Our People” is more about cultural connections to place, rather than a shared feeling of marginalization or defensiveness. “The breadth of perspectives the artists bring crosses time, continents and cultures. There is no single common element other than the medium of photography. As an example, Hulleah Tsinhnhahjinnie’s imagery addresses stereotypes that exist about places that are sacred; that may seem defensive, but it is also an act of self-determination that is intrinsic to sovereignty. The politics of her work are critical in communicating a Navajo perspective to a broader, non-Navajo community. Other artists’ work serves as documentary, and others’ as self-reflection. The range of first-person voices is the strength of the exhibition.”
It’s a thematic area ripe for consideration, offering fertile ground for audience engagement, and something Ahtone is eager to have the museum continue to explore. “This is a direction I hope to take our non-Western exhibitions into further. In Oklahoma, we already have a great appreciation for Native American art. I believe that expanding that appreciation to include other tribal groups, and beyond, is going to benefit our community.”
Ultimately, Ahtone says, “This exhibition has imagery that is humorous, biting, ironic, sarcastic, imaginative and historic. Viewers will find work they like, but also – and more importantly – they will find images that will make them think long after they’ve left the galleries. I think people want to be impacted by art, and this exhibition will do that.”
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SEE IT FIRSTHAND
Our People, Our Land, Our Images will be on display through May 25 at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, including a gallery talk by Cherokee artist Shan Goshorn on Friday, April 11. Admission to the museum is free; visit ou.edu/fjjma or call 325.3272 for more information.