In Lushootseed and in English, the voice of Angela greets visitors to “Double Exposure: Edward S. Curtis, Marianne Nicolson, Tracy Rector, Will Wilson.” Angela is Snoqualmie and she lets everyone know they are on the homeland of Coast Salish people who are from tribes with familiar names, such as Duwamish, Suquamish, Muckleshoot and Tulalip. It’s an important reminder that Native people inhabited the land first. Angela’s introduction ends with a simple yet significant statement: “We are still here.” Nicolson, Rector and Wilson are all contemporary Native artists crafting dynamic, cutting-edge works.
Marianne Nicolson’s “Ḱanḱagawí” (The Seam of Heaven) is a majestic two-sided installation centered in the first gallery of the exhibition. According to Seattle Art Museum (SAM), the title literally translates to “sewn together.” It centers the Columbia River as well as the current negotiation to modernize the 1964 treaty between Canada and the U.S. over shared management of the river. The luminescent work contains symbolic images etched onto glass. The sound of water lapping on a shore emanating from a speaker above it reinforces the water aspect of the piece.
“It’s both sort of a meditative piece, it’s also about the thousands of years that the ancestors have lived on the Columbia River,” said SAM Curator Barbara Brotherton. “The work also talks about the ways in which the colonial mindset has created borders and boundaries and parceled off Native land and cut them from the river system.”
Brotherton went on to explain that the work questions why Indigenous people aren’t involved in the decision making given their intimate knowledge of the river. Nicolson is a photographer, a longtime environmental advocate and a member of the Dzawada’enuxw First Nation.
Rector is mixed race Choctaw/Seminole filmmaker, curator and co-founder of Longhouse media. She has five films in the show profiling “living, breathing” Native people. “Ch’aak’ S’aagi” (Eagle Bone) is a virtual reality experience featuring urban Native people talking about the challenges of honoring their ancestors while living in the city. In another film Rector profiles Lydia Sigo, a geoduck diver. In addition to traditional cameras, Rector also uses drones to reveal picturesque landscapes of the Pacific Northwest. To further illustrate the connection with the earth, oyster shells and river rocks surround the base of the screens. She described the films created for the exhibition as love poems to Mother Earth, the land and water.
“My hope is that people understand that for most indigenous people identity is not separate from environment,” said Rector. “My hope, too, is that people recognize that we don’t own the earth. At any time mother Earth can take back her power.”
Diné photographer Will Wilson’s captivating large-scale black and white portraits are from his “Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange: d=id=lalivc.” The sitters represent themselves however they choose and also share a statement, poem or song — while he records the session. Wilson gifts them a tintype in exchange for their permission to make digital prints. His subjects include: Swil Kanim, violinist, citizen of the Lummi Nation; John McCoy, Washington state senator, citizen of the Tulalip Nation; and Storme Webber, artist/poet, Sugpiaq/Black/Choctaw.
Wilson’s portraits spring to life with the aid of the Layar app. Think the talking portraits at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films. When you view Kanim’s portrait, he begins to play the violin.
According to SAM, the thousands of images Wilson has created for this project may make up the largest single-artist archive of images of Native peoples since Curtis.
“Double Exposure” is an expansive show with an abundance of art to view and texts to read. It’s an exhibition best viewed at an unhurried pace and with a critical eye. Rector, who also served on the advisory committee, said the show walks a fine line in recognizing the positive aspects of Curtis’ work — preserving language and taking photos of elders — with the negative parts of his legacy.
Surrounding Nicolson’s installation in the first gallery are photographs from Curtis. He’s well known for portraiture but this section is devoted to beautiful landscapes, which include Mount Rainier, Crater Lake, New Mexico’s Corn Mountain and many other locations. He’s able to capture their splendor but not their full impact and importance to Native people. Born in 1868, the avid outdoorsman experimented with photography as a teenager while living in Minnesota. In 1887, Curtis and his family moved to the Pacific Northwest. Shortly after arriving his father died and Curtis, the second-oldest of four, was responsible for taking care of his family. By 1896 he was a successful studio photographer in Seattle. The portraits he took included prominent businessmen of the day and Chief Seattle’s oldest daughter, Kikisoblu, who was also known as Princess Angeline.
Curtis won national contests and attracted the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt. Their friendship led to a connection with J.P. Morgan, who became a benefactor for Curtis’ “North America Indian” project. What was supposed to be a five-year endeavor ended up taking three decades and culminated in 20 volumes of work. Curtis traveled the country photographing Native people and their culture with the assistance of Native consultants. While working on this epic project he exhibited his photographs, created a motion picture titled, “In the Land of Head Hunters,” and took audio recordings in the field on wax cylinder that are available for visitors to listen to.
Curtis’ sepia-toned photography is highly regarded and revered, in part because of his skill level. In some circles hero worship is still pervasive. SAM has taken a decidedly different stance. While rare works are on display, the museum acknowledges that Curtis’ legacy is complex and problematic. As a White man Curtis brought a biased perspective to his work. For example, in “In a Piegan Lodge” from 1910, Little Plume and his son Yellow Kidney are shown wearing traditional clothing surrounded by items that were of significance to them. One of those items included an alarm clock, but in the final version Curtis burned it out. A modern clock didn’t fit the narrative of the “primitive” people he wanted to showcase. He commonly incorporated a vanishing theme, was heavy-handed with romanticism and provided wigs and clothing consistent with his vision. In the gallery texts, SAM incorporated perspectives from Native people to provide cultural context for his work.
Asia Tail is an artist, curator and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. She served on the advisory committee for the exhibition and wrote all of the “Double Exposure” text on SAM’s website. Tail questioned whether or not showing Curtis’ work reinforced harmful stereotypes. Ultimately, she hopes the exhibition will be an opportunity to benefit Indigenous people.
“This exhibition can be a space for educational and transformative conversations,” said Tail. “I want us to use this moment, 150 years after Curtis’ birth, to grapple with his legacy and then push forward to a future where Native representations are always created within our communities.”
Displaying Curtis’ work alongside contemporary Native artists is part of a growing shift among art institutions, which are becoming more critical of themselves and inviting visitors to do the same. They are becoming more conscious of who is telling the narrative. Rector credits the work of pioneers before her who helped create an environment for the show to take place.
In February, Tacoma Art Museum opened “Native Portraiture: Power and Perception.” The exhibition juxtaposes their Western art collection from non-Native artists with how contemporary Native artists see them. Last year, Baltimore Museum of Art began the process of deaccession. Seven works of art from prominent White male artists, including Andy Warhol, were placed on the auction block in May to generate funds so that the museum could diversify its collection.
In “Double Exposure” more than 150 of Curtis’ photographs are on display and that will undoubtedly get people through the door. It’s an opportunity to view rarely seen works, the camera he used in the field and a prop from his movie. But it’s the work of Nicolson, Rector and Wilson that leaves an indelible mark. Their creativity ignites a spark to see more from Native artists. It also raises the expectation that shows about Native people will come from them and not an outsider.
WHAT: “Double Exposure: Edward S. Curtis, Marianne Nicolson, Tracy Rector, Will Wilson”
WHEN: Runs until Sept. 9, tickets $24.95 with discounts for seniors, members of the military, students and teens
WHERE: Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave., Seattle
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Lisa on Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge
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