2018 – the year of the Native American blockbuster?

“Now I think more and more people are becoming involved and beginning to make films with their own ideas. We’re just looking for the first big crossover film that is Native American-themed and written and produced and everything.”

-Wes Studi

It’s a new year and a time for looking ahead. So let’s start the new year off on a hopeful note. This interview with actor Wes Studi will put you there. Studi is such a veteran that it is a surprise for me to learn that he didn’t really start acting until in his 40s. His big break came quite fast in the role as The Toughest Pawnee in Dances With Wolves (1990). Since then Studi has put over 90 credits to his name. He’s played a lot of Indians of course but also more non-ethnic specific roles, such as detective Casals alongside Al Pacino in Heat. Studi still yearns to be known as just an actor rather than a Native American actor and dreams about helming a comedy about a grumpy old man. A Native American in a leading role that is not defined primarily in Native American terms would indeed be a game-changer.

And who knows. Having recently watched the amazing Wind River (which I will write more about in a few days) I’m at moment hopeful about the future of Hollywood. The clean-up currently going on in the movie industry can only pave the way for a new Hollywood, one that’s hopefully more diversified and open to all kinds of narratives, not just ones that appeal to old white men.

 

Pendleton has made the perfect accessory for your next visit to the ice planet Hoth

Oh wow! Didn’t know this existed. The textile manufacturing company Pendleton has released a series of Star Wars blankets. Luke Skywalker and fam meet the tribes as familiar Star Wars motifs are set against backgrounds of traditional Native patterns. We’ve written about the popularity of the Star Wars franchise among contemporary Native American artists. My guess is that these blankets are at the top of these artists christmas wish lists.

Pendleton has produced one unique blanket for each movie in the latest trilogy, as well as a couple of others. My favourite blanket is probably the one that accompanies Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which premiered just last week. It has a beautiful red, blue, black and white color scheme and incorporates the Star Wars iconography into the overall Native pattern.

 

Sadly, Kiva Gallery doesn’t stock Pendleton Star Wars blankets just yet, but we do have several other Pendleton blankets for sale. Swedish winter may not be as gruelling as on Hoth, but almost. A Pendleton blanket is the perfect christmas gift, it will keep you warm and cozy all through winter.

 

How contemporary Native American artists counter cultural appropriation with artistic appropriation

Google “Native American appropriation art” and the first five pages of results or so are all about negative cases of cultural appropriation. On these pages we can read about how outsiders misuse Native American images and cultural heritage, such as the infamous feathered headdress on a lingerie clad model in a Victoria’s Secret show five years ago. Cultural appropriation, of course, continues to be a problem and something that should be addressed and discussed. However, when typing in that search term I wasn’t looking for Native Americans as victims. I wanted to read about how appropriation is used as a strategy within contemporary Native American art. I was looking for Native American artists as agents of empowerment. To find such results buried under droves of articles about how Native American iconography has been mistreated must feel like a double slap in the face. First whites steal Native cultural practices and use it in a distorted way, then this act of appropriation steals the attention away from Native artists who use appropriation as a way to symbolically fight back.

This makes it very difficult to place the aesthetic tactics of many Native American artists into proper art historical perspective, which is a shame, especially considering how significant appropriation is for many Native artists. Appropriation is, after all, a genre of contemporary art that has perhaps been the most important hub for questions concerning artistic authorship and originality and the contextual relativity of the meaning of images. It is perhaps within the Native art community that the legacy of appropriation art today finds it’s firmest stronghold. At first sight it may come as a surprise to learn how popular Andy Warhol is in this community. I can tell you that it is not because of his “Cowboy and Indian series”, but rather because of how Warhol demonstrated that the specialness of a sign – for instance a Campbell’s soup can – can be emptied by the act of repetition and how the meaning of a pre-existing image or object can be altered by placing it within a new context.

Warhol himself was not a particularly political figure, but the strategy of appropriation, of “copying” images and making them your own, has a history of political uses.
Dara Birnbaum and Sherrie Levine used appropriation to feminist ends. By repeating and recontextualizing imagery by male originators they questioned the authenticity of representations of gender. Appropriation has also been employed to question the commodity value of art and its underlying economic structures.

Even before it was a genre of art, Raphael Montanez Ortiz performed a case of appropriation aimed at exposing the misrepresentation of Native Americans. In 1957 he used a Tomahawk to chop up Anthony Mann’s western Winchester ’73. He then put the pieces back together at random, resulting in a complete scrambling and disruption of the original narrative. “Ortiz considered his shaman-like process resonant with his indigenous heritage. His destructive act also criticized media depictions of Native Americans.” 

As a genre, Native American appropriation art comes across as something self-evident and completely natural. Artists are simply taking images back that were stolen from them. Artists such as Douglas Miles, Jaque Fragua, Steven Paul Judd, Ryan Singer, among many others, consider appropriation a way to take repossession of images that they have lost control over. In short, one might say that appropriation art is a means to combat cultural appropriation.

We’ve written about the importance of graffiti for contemporary Native artists many times here on the blog. In the hands of Native artists, painting with spray cans in public spaces is no petty act of vandalism but a profoundly political gesture. This is clearly demonstrated by Jaques Fragua who wrote “This Is Indian Land” in giant letters on a construction site in Downtown Los Angeles. The act of appropriation is performed in a spirit kindred to graffiti. For Native American artists it is about re-claiming what is rightfully theirs by symbolically taking back their land by illegally writing on it, or redefining images that have been made from an external point of view.

We haven’t written about Jaque Fragua on the blog before, so let’s continue on him. Besides graffiti, Fragua considers appropriation one of his artistic go-to’s. “The Big Chief” is for instance a commercial symbol that has become a recurring character throughout Fragua’s work. Fragua explains: “He’s a chief from a sign that’s near my reservation, at Big Chief Gas Station. If you’ve ever watched Breaking Bad, you’ve see that gas station. I lifted him and I’ve been putting him everywhere—he’s the Big Chief, right? When you put a mirror against another mirror, you start seeing the core of the truths.”

In another interview, Fragua explains the appeal of appropriation more in depth: ”Simply, it’s about imagery that continues to colonize us. By creating fine art out of these visuals and emphasizing the images ad nauseum, it creates the opposite effect. Sort of like Warhol’s soup cans.”  Fragua thus reappropriates his culture’s iconography in a way that conceptually subverts our overconsumption of misappropriated Native American images that has turned into stereotypes.

Some critics fear that appropriation as a artistic gesture has lost some of its meaning in a time when borrowing, quoting, stealing and copying is everyday practice to the point of being ubiquitous. However, for Native American artists, appropriation simply follows the rules of the game set by a white hegemony. It is the answer to a signifying practice already put in place. As such, appropriation is important now perhaps more than ever. With a president that casually refers to people of Native American heritage as “Pocahontas”, and a culture at large that hold it’s racial stereotypes dearly, appropriation as artistic weapon offers a way to strike back. Contemporary Native American artists turn to appropriation not to be trendy or edgy but out of urgency. It opens a line of dialogue that lets Native Americans have the last word on images that they were not in charge of in the first place and thus to let the public know what they think about them.

Further reading about cultural appropriation:

https://unsettlingamerica.wordpress.com/2011/09/16/cultural-appreciation-or-cultural-appropriation/

https://jezebel.com/5959698/a-much-needed-primer-on-cultural-appropriation 

http://nativeappropriations.com

 

About appropriation art:

https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-the-art-of-copying-ten-masters-of-appropriation

https://www.thoughtco.com/appropriation-appropriation-art-183190 

“Okay, I think I can do that”: How to look at art and get inspired to do, well, just about anything.

There are days when you don’t have anything in particular to report – no news and no opinions. Some days you just want to write about something that makes you feel good. Something to inspire you to get off your ass and do stuff. Something in the “hell yeah!”-vein, in other words. This is one of those days. There are many things I love about Native American Art, but there is one thing in particular that keeps hold on me and it’s something that runs deeper than surface aesthetics. It is a certain attitude that shows you how powerful art can be. Art can give you a voice when other means of expression are suppressed. It is hard to find that attitude elsewhere, at least so collectively concentrated. The realization that art can show reality but also create another reality is what makes so many Native communities bubble with creativity.

The rapper Drake said in the song “Fireworks”: “from the concrete who knew that a flower would grow”, meaning that it is surprising that beauty could come from harsh circumstances. He clearly has no concept of Native Art. Or, to take an example closer to Drake’s own rap identity – New York’s graffiti culture in the late 1970s and early 80s. There is a lot about that era that reminds me of the contemporary Native art scene. That period is all about the creative ways of the disenfranchised to grow out of the concrete. Spraycan graffiti was a completely invented art form so there were no art schools to teach you how to do it. Ghetto kids were the professors and their education was on the streets where the tricks of the trade were passed from peer to peer. At the beginning there were no commercial ambitions- the practitioners had yet to find a way to monetize their art. It was just about rising above the everyday struggle by creating something beautiful and spreading it throughout the streets.
Art is empowering. It let’s you create and define your own world. When the realization of this occurs on a collective level, like with graffiti in 1970s New York, art is injected with an energy and enthusiasm that is highly intoxicating and convincing. Similarly, a lot of Native Americans today latch on to art as a source of optimism and tool for change.

I’m writing these words with one particular artist in mind: Steven Paul Judd. Few people embodies the DIY – attitude like Judd. He embarked on his artistic trajectory when trying to find some nice Native art to hang in his house. He failed to find anything that corresponded to his taste for pop art, so he simply set to work making some himself.

 

It is no accident that Judd has close ties to graffiti culture. But labelling Judd just a graffiti artist would be reductive. Creativity just pours out of him and into every facet and category of art. This guy is just pure inspiration, in the truest sense of the word. He has no proper education in the arts so he doesn’t always know the ”hows”, he just knows that he has to do it. And a lot of the times, Youtube tutorials will get you where you need to go. The quote in the title to this piece, of course, comes from Steven Paul Judd. And the mentality of going for it runs through his entire practice of art.

Not least it applies to his approach to historical iconography. Judd quite often uses familiar imagery but in a way as to make it more Native-centric. He uses art to create his own alternate version of pop-culture, for instance by fusing historical Native American iconography with the world of Star Wars, or by recasting superheroes such as The Hulk as Native American. Claiming your space in this way, despite what history and the powers that be say, is a deeply graffiti-like attitude.

In an interview Judd talks about his creative process in a way that seems to be representative of his energy and eagerness to get things done. Recently, Judd has been creating portraits of Sitting Bull, composed entirely out of Rubik’s Cubes. Which is like building a complicated puzzle, with smaller puzzles for pieces. The initial plan was to mount it on the wall but he finished the puzzle before he had figured out a way to fasten the cubes on the wall. So he just let the cubes lay on the floor, the art work now an installation rather than a wall piece.

If there’s a will there’s a way, I believe is the accurate motivational phrase here.
To continue in this vein of self-improvement, let us sum up by making it a rule that whenever you feel that things are just too damn hard, ask yourself: what would Steven Paul Judd do? If the conclusion you come up with is not “Okay, I think I can do that”, you’re doing it wrong.

Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World

The 28th edition of Stockholm International Film Festival starts tomorrow and there is one film in particular I would really like to see. It is a documentary called “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World”. The film explores the contribution of Native Americans to the evolution and history of rock and roll. As is evidenced by the many accounts from Rock and Roll superstars in the film, such as Steve van Zandt, Steven Tyler and Iggy Pop, Native American rock has had a significant influence on many popular musicians. Rarely has this influence been spelled out as specifically Indian, however, or contextualized in a coherent story about Native Americanness. The idea for the film came from Native American Stevie Salas who has himself been a professional musician for decades and played for many for big names. He knew the industry was full of Indians who were really influential but that not many people knew about outside the industry. For four years the filmmakers collected accounts from Native American musicians and other artists who had one way or another been influenced by rock by Native Americans.

Many of the rockers interviewed for the film talk about one track in particular: Link Wray’s Rumble from 1958. The track has a riff that Stevie Van Zandt calls “The Sexiest, toughest chord change in all of Rock and Roll”. In that chord change lay the foundation to the history of Rock and Roll and one can easily trace it through the sound of The Who, Black Sabbath, Stooges among countless others.

To get an idea of the monumental impact of the track you only need to watch as Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page puts it on and gets so overcome by its power that he cannot refrain from busting out some air riffs along to it.

 

Rumble has had a pop-cultural impact that stretches beyond the world of music. Film buffs may remember Wray’s tune as an indispensable addition to the mood of Pulp Fiction.  The song appears during the famous (well, aren’t pretty much all scenes from Pulp Fiction famous) diner scene during which John Travolta and Uma Thurman have their “uncomfortable silence”. Since the dialogue is here put on hold for a large part the music is what primarily carries the scene.

“Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World” is directed by Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana and has earned numerous awards from other film festivals. Tomorrow November 8, it can be seen at Stockholm Film Festival at 7 pm. There are additional screenings on November 12 and 16.

We the People

A lot of the issues, artists and news that have been covered on the blog this past spring and summer have now been collected in an exhibition at the Minnesota Museum of American Art. Called “We The People”, the exhibition investigates just what constitutes the American nation, and who are being excluded, at this point in history. It’s not just about the Native American experience but it is a big part of it. Among the Native American subjects that are tackled are Standing Rock, cultural appropriation and social consciousness in general.

Marlena Myles Dakota 38 + 2 Prayer Horse
Marlena Myles Dakota 38 + 2 Prayer Horse

Any believable approach to contemporary identity has to include the digital realm. Some of the work included in the exhibition seem to directly concern art’s relation to social media. For those thirsting for information, there is a lot to be found on the internet. But the tempo on social media is dizzying fast and one thing, or hashtag, is quickly replaced by another. Can art interface with this rapidity or is it doomed to always be one step behind? The exhibition offers two answers from two different art works. Marlena Myles’ “Dakota 38 + 2 Prayer Horse” is technically and aesthetically a very pleasing piece of work. But thematically it seems to arrive too late. Myles has taken the controversy of Sam Durant’s planned sculpture “Scaffold” at Minneapolis Sculpture Park as her subject. But as the conflict has already been elegantly resolved the painting has turned sadly obsolete and irrelevant.

Cannupa Hanska "The Weapon is Sharing (This Machine Kills Fascists)" from http://www.cannupahanska.com
Cannupa Hanska ”The Weapon is Sharing (This Machine Kills Fascists)” from http://www.cannupahanska.com

Cannupa Hanska has another approach. He was a notable presence at the protests at Standing Rock and his “The Weapon Is Sharing (This Machine Kills Fascists)” (2017) follows up on those protests. Like Myles’ painting this is thus a highly topical work but it manages to transcend the specific to make a comment on the nature of digital documentation in general. Hanska has recreated cellphones out of clay and printed photographs from the protests at Standing Rock onto them. He thereby gives them permanence beyond the momentary and ephemeral. At the same time, the mimicking of historical artefacts will infiltrate the archives with a narrative of resistance and protest. Cannupa Hanska’s eloquent explanation is worth quoting:

These objects mirror the decayed aesthetic of the artifact to inspire institutions who collect our sacred objects to embed this narrative into their basements and cabinets, letting these pieces join our relatives, so that our ancestors may know what we as Indigenous peoples are currently experiencing. Much as we update our statuses on social media for the current world know our stories, these objects utilize a visual language from our contemporary communication, translating into a literal form of talking to our ancestors. Confined in museums and private collections, the ancestors of all nations are close to each other, communicating and creating alliance in dark caverns, as a pooling of medicines which is reflected in our contemporary gatherings such as at Standing Rock. This work aims to let them know how we are hearing them, and we are connecting.

The exhibition is curated by four people with different backgrounds, and besides a strong Native presence the curators weigh heavily on LGBTQ themes, and issues of African American identities.

It seems like an important exhibition and I wish I could visit but it’s a little off the beaten path for me.

The exhibition runs August 17 – October 29, 2017.

 

 

Different times.

Buffy Sainte Marie said of her experience working on Sesame Street that it was ”Wonderful all around. I was on for over five years (until Reagan cut the budget for the arts). We took Big Bird to Taos Pueblo, did multicultural programming in my backyard in Hawaii, and lots in New York. They never stereotyped me, always listened to my script ideas, and stayed truly child-centered. I was breastfeeding my baby in 1976 and suggested we do a segment on it, and we did and it was perfect. (We) also did sibling rivalry, and I taught the Count to count in Cree. As a songwriter who really believes in the power of the three-minute song to change the world for short-attention-span audiences, ”Sesame Street” was right up my alley, and I’m grateful for every minute of it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=65AdU7w-Hg4&t=33s

Sometimes good intentions are not enough: the case of the well-meaning white artist

It’s been a turbulent spring and summer in the art world. As art does, it has stirred up some strong feelings in places. Add questions of race to the mix and you get something close to an uproar. There have been protest directly in galleries. There have been questions as to who has the right to represent what (which translates into: does a white person have the right to represent the experiences of other races?) Personally, I think this kind of ruckus is ultimately for the good. People and cultures that do not normally enter into dialogue have met. Maybe I’m wrong, but in some cases it seems that the parties have actually listened to each other and tried to reach some kind of agreement.

Speaking as an art lover, I consider myself an unfailing patron of the arts and its right to express whatever it wishes. If someone wants to paint swastikas on cats I say fine. My excuse is that art is complex and I can look at those swastikas and even like them without suspecting that I’ve become a Nazi. Thing is, those who protest certain art are probably also art lovers. And if some group of people takes offence, suddenly art is not so complex. Real hurt has been caused, and it can’t be theorized away.

The controversy that went the furthest this summer was the one that surrounded a sculpture by Sam Durant that was set to become a permanent part of Walker Art Center’s sculpture garden. Titled “Scaffold,” it was a representation of seven gallows used in historic U.S. government executions, including those of abolitionist John Brown in 1859, four anarchists in Chicago’s 1886 Haymarket affair, and, in 1862, 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Minn. — the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
When I first heard about Native Americans protesting the erection of “Scaffold” at the Walker Centre I was a little puzzled. Surely, I thought, they must understand that this is not a monument to genocide but a statement about historical oppression by a socially and politically minded artist. I carried this sentiment around with me for about a month or so before finally having time to sit down and get some knowledge on the matter. It was an interview with Sam Durant that made me change my mind. He explains how “Scaffold” was born out of an experienced need for the USA to own up to its past; to not sweep it under the rug but to live with it and learn from it. As an artistic gesture, that’s about as politically responsible as they come. So, how could it be that it was received so wrong? The problem, of course, was that Durant trusted that intentions would be enough. Intention, especially when good and politically commendable, is a trap of ego-centricity that makes it hard to anticipate the reactions of surrounding society. This made Durant unable to foresee what eventually happened:

“So the Dakota people basically saw something that looked like a monument to their massacre. Mankato is burned into their consciousness. It’s not abstract. As one person said to me, “That’s a killing machine.” Then it turns out that the garden is located on [historic] Dakota land. So you couldn’t have a better test case of white ignorance in one place.”

 

Often artist will cling to their intentions like lifejackets through the stormy waters of protests. “I actually meant well so it must be right”. My granddaughter offers the same excuse when accidentally harming her little sister. “I didn’t mean to, I didn’t mean to, I didn’t mean to”, she repeats like a mantra of exculpation. Fair enough, but the offended party is still hurt. I think Sam Durant’s behaviour and code of conduct has been exemplary throughout his whole ordeal and can serve as guideline for artists in similar situations. He realised that good intentions are not enough. Instead of using his good intentions as a fortress to shield him from reprisals, which I suspect many in his position would have done, and he sat down with the parties that had objections against his artwork to see what could be done.
After listening to them he decided that their real hurt overshadowed theoretical artistic importance. Giacometti famously said that given the choice on whether to save a Rembrandt or a cat from a fire, he would save the cat. Durant has also proven to be an artist that self-denyingly chooses life above his art. And as the ultimate sacrifice, Durant signed over all the rights to the work to the Dakota tribe which then had a ceremonial burning of it.

Post-structuralist art theory teaches that intention means nothing. Meaning ultimately lies with the receiving party. Caught in a racial jam, most artists will choose to ignore that lesson. Not Durant. He was willing to right his wrongs when he found that intentions could not be eternalized into general consensus.

I write this not as a deterrence for artist to step out of the boundaries of their racially defined experience. On the contrary, I think artists should not be afraid to speak on experiences that are not theirs. At least part of the artist’s task is to imagine other realities, so why not those of other races.
I think we need more well-intentioned failures. As evidenced by the Durant case, that’s when dialogue can happen. But if you are going to fail, please acknowledge it. Otherwise you might end up defending something others consider racist and suddenly your good intentions have turned unintentionally detrimental.

How Star Wars has inspired Native American art.

Yesterday marked the 40th anniversary of the Star Wars franchise. What better way to celebrate than to show some examples of how Star Wars has appealed to Native artists.
Besides a notable similarity between traditional Hopi hairstyles and how Princess Leia wears her hair, as illustrated by Nicholas Galanin, Star Wars has little direct relevance to Native culturRyanSinger the new ambassadors, 2015e. But of course Native peoples watch movies too. And the classic tale of good triumphing over evil seem to hold something different for everyone to identify with.

Navajo artist Ryan Singer, represented by Kiva Gallery, relies heavily on pop culture in his painting so it’s a small surprise that he has devoted a series of recent paintings to Star Wars. Singer explained the attraction in a radio interview:

“as I got older I started to, kind of like fusing pop-culture imagery with the Navajo culture. Somehow that Star Wars just, kind of like, manifested in there. And, I always thought of Tatooine as the desert that was close to Tuba City where I grew up, and the Sand People nomadic people real similar to how the Navajos were. So, there were all these similarities I saw in the movies. There really is, like sort of, two different worlds, you know, as far as culture. I try to bring them together and mix them up.”

The imaginary movie posters of Jeffrey Veregge has been featured on the blog before. Veregge depicts familiar Star Wars motifs and characters in the artistic style inherited from his Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe.

 

Shes_Got_it_where_it_countsJVDark-Father

 

A few years back, Andy Everson did a series of Star Wars – themed paintings that had a political twist. In Everson’s hands, Star Wars battle of light and dark was referenced in order to address political concerns amongst his own tribe.

images-9

o-STAR-WARS-NATIVE-STYLE-facebook

 

 

 

 

 

 

Steven Paul Judd specializes in “impossible” encounters of pop-cultural icons with Native American history. His photoshopped juxtapositions are often strikingly
funny but also remarkable for demonstrating a missed encounter and the exclusion of Native culture from mainstream pop culture.

images-11

Excluded or not, the above artists have all taken something they like and made it their own, even though the original content has no explicit relation to their culture whatsoever. I don’t want to read to much into this, but in a way I find the interest in Star Wars encouraging. It demonstrates a DIY approach to inclusion. Looking at these images I feel  – If I may allow myself to partake in Star Wars geekiness and reference the revised subtitle of the very first Star Wars movie –  A New Hope that Native culture may take a bigger slice of pop culture one day.

Teaching Jimmy Nelson a lesson on the importance of listening

Currently, Jimmy Nelson’s photographic project “Before They Pass Away” is touring the world. As the somewhat dramatic title indicates, the theme is extinction, and the subjects of this supposed extinction are indigenous cultures. From Inuit tribes in Northern Siberia to Argentinian Gauchos in the South, Nelson has travelled the widths and lengths of the globe to unearth cultures almost entirely disconnected from modern society.

The project has been both celebrated and criticized. Visually speaking, the photographs are without a doubt impressive. When the exhibition visited Fotografiska Museet in Stockholm last year, I was myself immediately seduced by the gigantic glossy tableaus. So big are they that they let you immerse yourself in widespread landscapes as well as the slightest ornamental detail on the items of clothing. Visual seduction aside, however, something starts to chafe when getting deeper into the information and statements accompanying the project. This is far from an objective anthropological exposé. Nelson makes no qualms about it. In the statement accompanying the exhibition, Nelson’s photographs are said to be entirely subjective. They do not seek to capture the truth. The figures are obviously posed, romanticized and beautified. In Nelson’s words they are made up to be “icons” rather than real, everyday people. Okay, one thinks, so are the photos to be read as some sort of postmodernist interrogation of the notion of truth? It would be one thing if it was, but Nelson’s influences lean more toward Edward S. Curtis than Jean-Francois Lyotard, so in fact it’s quite the opposite. In other places he even considers himself a “collector of truth”. The question inevitably poses itself – how can one be both the representative of truth and yet highly subjective? No doubt there seems to be some confusion about Nelson’s conceptual pediments. Many have been understandably offended by Nelson’s reckless wielding of his flimsy version of truth and the project has suffered severe critique from Survival International (http://www.survivalinternational.org/news/10244) as well as representatives of the very cultures he photographs ( http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/oct/29/jimmy-nelson-indigenous-people-survival-international). What they have objected to is how Nelson presents these cultures as threatened by modern life when they show no signs of disappearing, but also the idealized manner in which they appear in the photos.

As a Swedish gallery dealing in Native American art, I can relate to Nelson’s position. I am by necessity an outsider to the culture I am interested in. I want the objects that are exhibited in my gallery to be beautiful, but I also want them to say something about the cultural background from which they originate. Not always does this fit into my what my expectations tell me. One way of making the job easier is through personal contact with the artists. All of the art in Kiva Gallery are chosen on the basis of a personal relationship with the artists. I have visited them in their homes. I have talked to them. I’ve been in awe. I’ve disagreed. I’ve been wide-eyed and I’ve been disappointed. I’ve been human to them and they have been human to me. I have listened to their stories and as a result I’ve sometimes had to revise my preconceptions. It doesn’t really seem like Nelson has listened to the stories of the people he portrays. If he had he would know that the Dani people of West Papua don’t like to be called the “most dreaded head-hunting tribe of Papua” (http://www.survivalinternational.org/news/10628).
Not once in my encounters with Native Americans have I heard talk of the culture dying out. And If Nelson had listened I doubt that he would have heard it. My point is that marginalized people should be allowed to be in charge of their own narrative.th

The problem is that Nelson tries to be both an artist and an anthropologist. Considering the scarcity of documentation around the cultures Nelson targets, the artist and the anthropologist are far from comfortable bedfellows. As an artist, Nelson is free to do whatever he feels like with his subjects. But an anthropologist doesn’t have – or shouldn’t have – that freedom. An artistically distorted image needs an anthropologically “true” image as a counterweight, otherwise there is no way to recognize the distortion. But if no other images exist, Nelson’s image becomes the primary point of reference and thereby artificiality easily becomes the “true” image. This becomes an issue considering that Nelson merits himself on capturing cultures that are infamously hard to access, which is to say that documentation is very scarce. Nelson has to make a choice: either the images are to be considered as a purely subjective expression of an artist’s vision or objective anthropological documentation. Having it both ways leaves Nelson open to the charge of misrepresentation and falsification.

Of course, Nelson means well – he wants the world to see how beautiful the people he meets are. Nothing wrong with that. The problem is that such a shallow approach is simply not enough to live up to his grander ethnographic ambitions. In his TED talk, Nelson gives a taste of just how shallow his vision th-1of truth really is. In a slideshow of his photographs, Nelson includes an image of a group of Samburu Warriors, shot from the back. The figures, Nelson claims, are often mistaken for women. He then shows the frontal view – tadaa, they’re men! The point of this little demonstration is to encourage us to “look closer, for things are not always what they seem”. If Nelson’s vision of the truth is as superficial as that it goes without saying that his claims of the photos as an “important ethnographic record” should be disqualified. Elissa Washuta has faulted Nelson’s preoccupation with visual cues of identity and notes that, “Personal strongholds of identity are often invisible.“ (http://www.salon.com/2013/11/24/americas_w
rongheaded_obsession_with_vanishing_indigenous_peoples/
). Which is to say that Nelson would do well to focus on factors other than mere superficial appearance. This might be much to ask of a photographer. But what if Nelson instead of dressing his subjects up to look as exotic and obsolete as possible had asked them to be photographed with something that was important to them. Maybe someone had wanted to be portrayed with their iPhone playing – I don’t know – Candy Crush. All of a sudden a more complex picture comes to light, one that is not compatible with generalizing and dramatic claims about dying cultures. Sadly, Nelson doesn’t allow for such mixtures of tradition and progress. His narrative is already in place, and it is one where his photographs stands as the last heroic record of vanished cultures.

There is a glaring absence of Native North American cultures from Nelson’s project. The exclusion was consciously made by Nelson on grounds that North American tribes haven’t retained their heritage. Not only is this a deeply insulting claim but it also bears witness to how limited and antiquated Nelson’s ethnographic guidelines are. It goes to show that Nelson’s conclusion is already in place even before he has started his photographic documentation. As a result, Nelson has put himself in the unflattering and eminently colonialist position of judging was is and is not to be considered as authentic to a culture. Similar judgments of authenticity often guided the practice of Nelson’s hero Edward S. Curtis. Just like Nelson, Curtis would dress up his subjects and pose them for the camera. But sometimes an unwelcome reality would still intrude. Curtis would then have to alter photographs after being shot to fit his view of how things should be (http://www.salon.com/2013/11/24/americas_wrongheaded_obsession_with_vanishing_indigenous_peoples/ ). In a portrait of Little Plume and his son Yellow Kidney, for instance, Curtis retouched the picture to remove an alarm clock that he deemed incompatible with the preconceived simple ways of the Native. It’s a paradoxical and self-defeating way of documentation. On the one hand the presumed likeness of photography is utilised to bring us closer to cultures most have very little knowledge about. But on the other hand subjective judgments of what is and what is not part of the culture brings us farther away from the present realities of these cultures.

If Nelson had listened more he would have realised that change does not necessarily equal death. A lot of the cultures he portrays have changed from what they were a hundred years ago. That does not mean they are about to disappear.
Native Americans today watch TV, they listen to Beyoncé or Taylor Swift, they skateboard. This does not mean that they “havent retained their heritage”. They also hold traditional ceremonies, pow-wows and sweat lodges. This diversity has not led to cultural death. On the contrary Natives are quite proud of their culture which today includes both traditional and modern elements.
And if Nelson would have allowed his subjects to speak louder than his camera I doubt they would have spoken of death.