WALKING PAST a portrait of George Washington to get to the Portland Art Museum's new exhibit, Contemporary Native Photographers and the Edward Curtis Legacy, is the first of many reminders that what you're about to witness—work by contemporary Native American artists—isn't something we see often enough at major arts institutions.
In Contemporary Native Photographers, Zig Jackson, Wendy Red Star, and Will Wilson deconstruct the lopsided power dynamic inherent in Edward Curtis' images of Native Americans, taken between 1907 and 1930. Though Curtis' collection, The Native American Indian, holds undeniable archival value, his images were framed to support an understanding of Native Americans as "the vanishing race," spinning the effects of genocide into a narrative of inevitability, and portraying his subjects as stoic individuals, rather than multifaceted members of diverse communities.
Jackson's work is slyly funny, but also deeply disturbing. In the series Indian Photographing Tourist Photographing Indian, he captures white tourists taking pictures of Native Americans. A visual indictment of shameful, unexamined objectification, it's absolutely necessary. The same goes for Jackson's diptych "Two Moons Stoic/Two Moons Smiling," which depicts two images of one man, first in a Curtis pose (stoic, three-quarters view), and smiling in the second image—the startling contrast reveals the limitations of the Curtis frame.
Red Star's "Map of the Allotted Lands of the Crow Reservation Montana—A Tribute to Many Good Women" superimposes color transparencies of Apsáalooke women against a reservation map. In "Let Them Have Their Voice," Red Star juxtaposes flattened silhouettes of Curtis images, with a recording of Crow Nation men singing. These are precise exercises in revealing voice and identity where Curtis depicted uniformity.
Wilson's prints resemble Curtis' in medium and composition. But the power dynamic shifts: Wilson gives each of his original prints to his subjects. His portraits are exchanges.
If you go to one art show a year, this should be it. We need exhibitions that interrogate how art has perpetuated unfair power dynamics—and how it subverts them. The exhibit's popularity would seem to back me up: I went on a weekday morning, often a dead time for galleries, and the show was packed.
Contemporary Native Photographers and the Edward Curtis Legacy
by Zig Jackson, Wendy Red Star, Will Wilson
Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park, through May 8, $19.99, portlandartmuseum.org