By Darla Shelden
City Sentinel Reporter
On Thursday, January 26, the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art will host a new exhibition titled, PHOTO/SYNTHESIS. The exhibition of contemporary photography by Navajo artist Will Wilson offers a look at living Oklahomans representing seven Native tribal communities. The exhibition opens with a free public lecture by Wilson at 7 p.m. followed by a reception at 8 p.m.
Participating tribal communities include the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, Comanche Nation, Osage Nation, Otoe-Missouria Tribe, Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma and Wichita and Affiliated Tribes.
The museum is located at 555 Elm Avenue, on the University of Oklahoma campus in Norman.
The show will also include historic works by noted early 20th-century photographer Edward Curtis’s (1868-1952). While Curtis is remembered for depicting Native American subjects in specific poses, backgrounds and clothing, often of his choosing, Wilson allowed his subjects to decide how they wanted to be photographed.
According to a press release, Wilson and heather ahtone, the museum’s James T. Bialac Associate Curator of Native American and Non-Western Art, spent last summer working with tribal leaders in Oklahoma to photograph selected community members. Some were distant relatives of those originally included in Curtis’s 1930 Indians of Oklahoma portfolio from his famous publication, The North American Indian.
This difference in approach is significant because it empowers the sitters to determine their own portrayal, ahtone said.
“Wilson and I are both interested in the relationship between identity and representation, especially as it is visually materialized for Native people through art,” ahtone said. “Recognizing that photography is an important tool for representation and expressing agency, we committed to a methodology for PHOTO/SYNTHESIS that positioned the tribes as agents in the creation of the images. We hoped that this unique collaboration might cause a rift, breaking away from the historicizing effect of Curtis’s images.
“Through co-authorship in the production of the photography by the tribal communities and Wilson, tribes were asked to consider how they wanted their communities to be represented through the image. In sharing authorship, an act of incredible generosity on the part of the artist, Wilson fostered reciprocity and respect, affirming that collaboration serves a powerful role in working with Native peoples,” ahtone continued.
PHOTO/SYNTHESIS represents an extension of Wilson’s greater body of work, the Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange (CIPX), which he began in 2012. Ahtone believes his CIPX program reimagines photography for indigenous people, by posing a single question: what if indigenous people had invented photography?
By using a Civil War-era lens and a wet plate collodion process, Wilson produces photographs similar in appearance to those of Curtis. Wilson travels with a portable dark room, so he is able to take and develop the photograph within about 15 minutes, ahtone noted.
“Wilson’s resulting series is composed of stunning portraits, full of aesthetic value and individual personality, that also include the voice of the subject as part of the image,” said ahtone. “As a curator, I found the project an incredibly astute challenge to the issues of representation that persist for Indigenous communities.
“As a Native curator, though, CIPX begged another question: what if indigenous people had invented museum curating? From this shared point of professional and cultural inquiry, and a visit over coffee with Wilson in 2013, PHOTO/SYNTHESIS was born,” Ahtone stated.
The exhibit is a display of 53 new photographs by Wilson, plus 33 works by Curtis from the museum’s permanent collection.
Wilson also made video recordings of some of the leaders speaking about contemporary issues they face. These first-person accounts, Wilson’s “Talking Tintypes,” will be created with the first use of the augmented reality software Layar in a museum and with his photography.
The exhibition is accompanied by a catalog authored by ahtone and Janet Berlo, professor of art history and visual and cultural studies at the University of Rochester.
The exhibition runs through April 2 in the Nancy Johnston Records Gallery and is made possible, in part, by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
A gallery talk and tour by ahtone will take place at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, February 7.
On the evening of January 26, the museum will open a small exhibition of works by Native Oklahoma artist Poteet Victory in the adjoining Ellen and Richard L. Sandor Gallery. Victory’s Abbreviated Portrait Series includes portraits of celebrities and other iconic figures. A public guest lecture by Victory, followed by a reception, is scheduled for 1 p.m. Tuesday, February 28.
These events are free and open to the public. More information about PHOTO/SYNTHESIS, as well as related programs, is available at www.ou.edu/fjjma.
EDITOR’S NOTE: heather ahtone prefers that her name be printed in all lowercase letters.