The exhibition “Speaking with Light” is a provocative group show featuring landmark images captured by more than 30 contemporary Indigenous photographers. It’s an exhaustive and surprising collection of photos that documents important shifts in the art form over the past four decades.
But the show is also, and perhaps more interestingly, about the power of art-making itself — about the ability of artists to make objects that take command of the social narrative, that rewrite stories from their own perspective, and that offer up different endings.
The show aims “to shift power dynamics and bring attention to misrepresentations,” as the exhibition materials explain. These pictures of Indigenous people made by Indigenous people stand in opposition to centuries of imagery, created and distributed by outsiders, that confuse the truth about Native American history.
Organized by Will Wilson and John Rohrbach, the show acknowledges that the term “Indigenous” can be troublesome. Before the era of colonialism, native tribes were organized into scores of separate, sovereign entities with individual languages and cultural establishments. Grouping members of different tribes together in one show suggests every Native American shares the same perspective.
But the exhibition makes a solid argument for that economy of language by showing how mutual events — in particular, colonialism and its enduring impacts on humans, land and commerce — created a collective history among those tribes and contributed to common distortions and fabrications about their identities over time. Then it blows up those fictions with powerful imagery offering a different point of view.
Before it does all that, though, the show takes an important step back in time, opening with a series of formal, black-and-white portraits, taken in the mid-1800s, of tribal leaders on the occasion of their meetings with representatives of the U.S. government.
Such portraits were customary at the time and meant to document the negotiations between the tribes and the various entities that wanted their land and resources. The pictures are posed and peaceful and give no hints to what was really happening — that concessions of land by tribes were often forced and that agreements of protection were quickly broken by the government.
These relics make for an unusual opening for a show of contemporary art, but they lay important groundwork by establishing that these tribes were considered governments at the time. Native American officials stand shoulder-to-shoulder with federal representatives, equally. These tribes were actual nations, and that is a perspective held by many Native Americans — including the artists in this exhibition — today.
From there, “Speaking with Light” quickly moves onto the present, displaying work by Native American art photographers who challenge that sort of imagery and the decades of false narratives that followed. There are striking images in the mix.
Some of them are straightforward and speak for themselves, such as Zig Jackson’s 1999 diptych, “Beat Them Savages, San Francisco, California/Praise Them Savages, Salt Lake City, Utah.”
The piece pairs two photos of public sculptures of Native Americans — one that shows them submitting to white settlers, and a second that portrays them as heroic, noble savages. Set side-by-side, they show how representations of Indigenous people were arbitrary and reductive and used for whatever purpose was convenient at the time.
Another photo featured in the exhibition, Tom Jones’s 2006 “Chippewa” is simply a picture of a sign for a roadside motel, called The Chippewa, that features a male figure in full, feather headdress and promises guests an “indoor pool” and a “sun whirlpool.” The piece documents how Native American imagery was commodified — often, ridiculously — by non-natives for profit.
“Speaking with Light” also delves into fantasy with staged photos that make interesting observations about time and place. For his 2016 photo “Nothing Happened Here,” Jeremy Dennis concocted a photo of a contemporary Native American man sitting peacefully on a porch on New York’s Long Island with five arrows shot into his body. His stoic face shows no sign of pain or distress and the piece is meant to illustrate how the past sufferings of local Shinnecock nation go unrecognized by local authorities.
To set up her 2019 photo “Evolvers,” Cara Romero brought four Native American boys from a nearby reservation, dressed in traditional feathers and loin cloths, to a Southern California valley where their tribal nations originated and which is now home to a series of wind turbines. The piece has a science-fiction feel — the boys look to be running for their lives at the sight of the windmills — and is meant to evoke the enduring connection between people and their land.
Other photos get at different aspects of Native American identity. Some take on time, eschewing the sense that American history started when European settlers arrived. Some dive into current social issues that are the legacy of colonialism, such as violence and environmental damage.
But cumulatively, they aim for depth, adding layers of identity to a group of people who have too often been treated as singular objects. One of the best examples: the piece titled “Smiling Indians,” created by the performance artists known as The 1491s.
The piece is, simply, a digital slide show of contemporary Native Americans smiling, one after another. It is meant to contrast frequent representations of Indians as somber and humorless.
Some of the narratives in the show are extreme. Some pick and choose facts in service of the messages they want to convey. Some are unsettling and others are downright funny. Some feel journalistic while others are exaggerated.
What is important is that these pictures are owned by the people being pictured. They are created by insiders, not outsiders. They are, like all stories, both fact and fiction, but by claiming authorship, these artists are able to tell things their own way. That is the power of a photographer with skill and shrewdness, and that is the power of art.
IF YOU GO
“Speaking with Light: Contemporary Indigenous Photography” continues through May 22 at the Denver Art Museum. Info: 720-865-5000 or denverartmuseum.org.
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